A woman reacts as she speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron and French Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert (partially hidden) as they visit the 55th International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture) in Paris, France, February 24, 2018.   REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/Pool
© Reuters

Emmanuel Macron endured jeers and whistles on his first visit as president to France’s largest agricultural fair amid growing tension between his government and the country’s farmers.

Mr Macron was confronted by hostile crowds on Saturday as he toured the showground in southern Paris, underlining the difficulties he faces in winning over France’s powerful agricultural lobby, which has been angered by EU trade talks and Chinese land purchases.

In a tense exchange with a farmer over a weed-killer which the government has said it will ban, a visibly angry Mr Macron said he would find solutions for farmers who were unable to replace glyphosate, which is thought to be carcinogenic

The Salon de l’Agriculture traditionally brings France’s political class into close, and often confrontational, contact with the country’s farmers. Last year, Mr Macron was hit by an egg when he visited as presidential candidate.

On Saturday the sporadic but insistent jeers were countered by some applause as anger among farmers was met by cautious optimism from others.

“He listens to us but we are still waiting. We want to believe that he will do what he says,” said Stephane Le Druillennec, a farmer from Brittany.

“It’s too soon to judge him but the ideas are there,” said Jean-Noel Laverner, another farmer at the event.

The visit came at the end of a week that saw Mr Macron outline a €5bn investment plan for France’s agricultural sector and farmers protesting against trade talks between South America and the EU.

Although Mr Macron said he did not “give a damn about preparing” for Saturday, his invitation to hundreds of farmers to visit the Elysée Palace two days ago was seen as an attempt to minimise the chances of a hostile reception. 

He urged farmers to embrace a “cultural revolution” and move away from EU subsidies and intensive production methods on Thursday as he presented his investment plan.

French President Emmanuel Macron caresses a cow as he visits the 55th International Agriculture Fair (Salon de l'Agriculture) in Paris, France, February 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/Pool
Mr Macron at the 55th annual agricultural fair in Paris © Reuters

He said he would restrain the purchase of farmland by foreign “powers” and defended his desire to overthrow the “status quo”, fuelling farmers’ fears he might push for reform of European agricultural subsidies under its Common Agricultural Policy.

Mr Macron has also suggested cutting prized EU subsidies for French farmers as part of Europe’s attempts to modernise its next long-term budget. The EU is scrambling to make savings as it faces a black hole of up to €15bn after Brexit. 

CAP — which provides direct aid to European farmers — makes up a third of the common pot and is being eyed by Mr Macron as a French “taboo” that needs to be revamped.

“We have come to this paradoxical situation in which the CAP has become a French taboo while our farmers continue to criticise the way it works”, Mr Macron said in a speech at the Sorbonne last September.

“We face a future where “50 per cent of farmers might leave the profession in the next 10 years . . . we have to replace them with the young,” said Jérémy Decerle, president of the Jeunes Agriculteurs, a powerful union representing young farmers. 

“It depends on the will of Europe to defend and advance agriculture. If we squeeze [CAP] to make up for . . . the financial impact of Brexit, then, yes, at some point we will lose. And it will show that for Europe, agriculture is not a strategic sector. Yes, it worries us,” Mr Decerle added.

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