Plus ça change. Facing Russian and American aggressive trade practices and divisions among EU member states, France plans to offer Europe’s fragile agriculture sector more protections.
That was the main message of a speech President Emmanuel Macron gave on Saturday at France’s famed yearly farm fair, the Salon de l’Agriculture.
Macron made the case for less competition among member states, maintaining an “ambitious” European agriculture budget despite Brexit, and promising better support for farmers, especially younger ones getting started.
European member states are currently negotiating a new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as Britain prepares to leave the EU and end its budgetary contributions.
Macron asserted that Brexit would not diminish the budget by “one euro less,” but did not indicate if France would make up the difference, or expect the EU to foot the bill.
France is Europe’s most important agricultural producer and its farmers are a powerful constituency.
Facing rolling protests and low approval numbers across the country, Macron can ill afford to alienate these farmers.
In an unusual move by a president, Macron made the needs of young farmers starting out a central focus of his speech, promising to help them surmount the prohibitive costs of buying land and launching their operations, including by “integrating this issue in the CAP negotiation.” The context is that roughly half of Europe’s farmers are expected to retire by 2022.
Roughly half the 500 audience members were young farmers from France and across Europe. Not all are convinced by Macron’s promises, with some telling Politico they would wait and see how Macron’s vision translates concretely.
Macron also reiterated France’s protectionist tendencies on trade, tying any new free trade agreements on agricultural goods to the respect of European environmental, health and social requirements to ensure fair competition, saying “this is why France, alongside the European Commission, opposed all trade negotiations on agricultural products with the U.S.,” a popular position among French farmers.
The yearly agricultural fair is a central event in the political calendar, one that presidents have traditionally used as a litmus test for their popularity. This year, it coincided with the 15th week of Yellow Jackets protests that started as opposition to a fuel tax and grew to calls for Macron’s resignation. While protesters were marching in other parts of France, they were nowhere the be seen at the fair, where security was tight.