The French President calls for a “more protective, more pragmatic, more ambitious” Common Agricultural Policy. It won’t be enough to help the French farmers out of the crisis.
The Paris International Agricultural Show is an unmissable event for French presidents, a place where they like to test their popularity. This year was no exception. The media have reported with excitement, as if the information mattered, that President Macron set a new record by strolling for more than fourteen hours among the animals, taking selfies and chatting with farmers last Saturday .
What else did we learn from his visit? That Macron is a meat eater. The news was twitted as he ate a rump steak. It might not be as anecdotal as it seems, considering the widening gap of misunderstanding between French carnivores and French vegetarians. But, of course, the main course was not there.
French farmers in crisis
The French agriculture is in crisis. France is the biggest agricultural producer in Europe, with a 70 billions euro production. It is also the main beneficiary of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), while Germany is the first contributor.
The crisis has been going on for a long time. “The prices of our products have stagnated for more than 30 years. Over the same period agriculture has modernized tremendously, and we have had to invest constantly,” sums up Daniel, who is heading a medium-sized cattle breeding farm in the South East of France. Daniel is 56. He started working as a farmer as a young man in the 1970’s.
He is a friendly and quiet guy. But he can really lose his temper when “people from the city” suspiciously ask him about the European subsidies he gets, as if the aid was some kind of bonanza. “To tell you the truth, I’d much rather get no help from Europe, and sell my products at a fair price”, he says. On average, direct CAP subsidies represent 47% of French farmers’ incomes; without them, many would go bankrupt.
No calculator in hand
Despite all his years of hard work and the fatigue of having to take care of his cattle seven days a week, 365 days a year, Daniel still loves his job. He keeps doing it with “the philosophical sense common to peasants rather than a calculator in the hand.”
He says he is lucky. In France, every second day a farmer commits suicide, which is much above the average compared to other walks of life. A recent study has shown that 14.7% of the men employed in the agricultural sector have depression symptoms. The rate climbs to 21,2% for women. For many, the discrepancy between the effort and the reward has become unbearable.
Calling himself a “patriot of agriculture”, at the Paris fair, Macron expressed the wish that CAP should become “more protective, more pragmatic, more ambitious”. His speech was warmly received. But it looks hazardous to claim for more of everything when Britain, a net contributor, is set to quit the Union, which will necessarily impact on the budget.
A 5% budget cut
Last June, the Commission proposed a 5% cut in CAP funding for 2021-2027, to €365 billion. Since then, France has been campaigning to keep the EU long-term budget to its current level. European countries are fiercely divided on the question, and it is not clear how much support Paris has rallied so far. Time is running out for an agreement to be reached before the European elections, as originally planned. The AGRI commission of the European Parliament has set a last vote for April on the subject, but as MEP Angélique Delahaye said, “our work will offer a starting point for next Parliament”.
Member states should take their time and make sure that the budget is not the only focus of the negotiations. As Daniel says, the issue is not about how much European money you get, but how decent living your work can guarantee.
The future of French farmers, as well as the food on our plates – whether vegetarians or carnivores — deserves a complete review of the support mechanisms. Fifty-seven years after CAP came to force, it is time to make sure that aid benefits primarily those who need it, and to those who commit to our common future by embracing organic farming.