Georgofili World

Newsletter of the Georgofili Academy

Farmers, the reasons for French unrest

Since the beginning of the year, the agricultural world’s rage and unrest have been evident throughout the country. To put pressure on the government, French farmers have multiplied their protest actions and initiatives. There are multiple reasons for their unrest: low prices, high debt, health crises, closing farms …
Farmers in France have become a minority, if not marginal, having seen their model collapse in the last few decades.
An account with figures of this seemingly inevitable evolution follows, Stephane Le Foll also tried to defend the case of French farmers at the Council Of European Agriculture Ministers in Brussels. 
In over thirty years, French agriculture’s share of the gross domestic product (GDP) has become an unstoppable downward curve. According to World Bank data, if agriculture still represented 4% of the French economy in 1980, it was just 1.7% in 2014.
Even the share of agricultural employment out of the overall labor market has been plummeting in recent decades. It was 31% in 1955, while it had already fallen to 8.8% in 1981 and today is down to 3.3 %.
Agriculture represented more than 6 million jobs at the end of 1950, while there were just 850,000 in 2013. During this time, French population has grown by 20 million people.
Farmers had the difficult task of producing and safeguarding the landscape with their farms and crops. But in just a few decades, the number of farms has more than diminished by over 50%. There were over a million farms at the end of 1980, now there are a little more than 400,000, wreaking particular havoc on small- and medium-sized farms.
Meanwhile, large farms are growing. In the last few years, even super intensive animal farms have sprung up, provoking the wrath of the agricultural trade unions. According to Paysanne Confederation, almost some thirty giant farms are currently being planned. These include factory farms for 250,000 hens in the Somme, 125,000 chickens in the Vaucluse, and 23,000 piglets in the Côtes d'Armor. The best known is one for 1,000 cows in the Somme.
High debt is one of the structural problems of the agricultural sector.
According to Agreste, the Ministry of Agriculture’s statistical service, “in 2010, the farm debt included in the agricultural accounting information network reached in average €159,700”. “Farms managed by farmers under forty years of age had an average debt of almost €200,000 because young people often run into debt facing set-up costs”.
Two-thirds of this are medium- to long-term debt, which corresponds to the investments by the farmers. To alleviate this situation, the government created a plan for farmers, that was sought by the sector. In practice it has deferred banking maturities for farmers who have applied for it from banks.
“It is a good thing. It helps overcome the crises and it will save the farms. But in this way we have made all citizens pay for the farmers’ problems. Is this what we want?” asks Patrick Bougeard, president of the association Solidarite' Paysans that helps farmers in debt.
In spite of this, France can still count on agriculture for its balance of trade. In 2014, the active balance was € 8.9 billion, while the overall trade deficit was € 53.8 billion. 
Furthermore, France remains a heavy-weight in European Union agriculture. It was the number one European producer in 2014, ahead of Germany, Italy, and Spain. It ensures one-fifth of European production.
But in terms of agricultural and food product exports, France has been behind the Netherlands and Germany in the last few years.
Notwithstanding these structural problems and the growing hardships in the sector, the farmer’s position is still desirable. Attendance at the technical schools (BTS) that train the agricultural trades is growing, with there never having been so many candidates. BTS farm management has seen more than a 14% increase in the last eight years, and BTS animal breeding, more than 19%.
According to Francois Purseigle, sociologist, specializing in the agricultural world, the newcomers do not come from the sector: “Only 13% of the young people in agricultural schools come from that world”, and even if the majority still hand down a family business, it is no longer the norm. According to Purseigle, “What we can observe is a crisis of the French family model, one determined by the inability of middle-sized farmers to reproduce themselves, to single out their successors. Today there are increasingly more young people who want to enter the agriculture, but 30% of those who set themselves up as farmers do not come from that world. There is a real desire for agriculture, but it does not come from farmers’ families. This is another reason that increases agriculture unrest”. 

From: "Le Monde" (France) foreign press release Agrapress nr 1150/2016