‘Virile’ exchanges expected as Macron heads to annual French farming show

Most politicians kiss babies; French leaders pat cows and make a fuss of lambs.

The Salon d’Agriculture, the country’s annual farm show that opens on Saturday, is a date presidents cannot afford to miss.

This year, Emmanuel Macron, who will inaugurate the event, faces an uncertain reception after weeks of protests by furious farmers in France and across Europe. And in a humiliating climbdown just hours before the show was due to open, the Elysée cancelled the president’s proposed “grand debate” after farmers’ representatives refused to take part.

In the run-up to this year’s 60th anniversary show, French officials have been engaged in what was described as “Operation Defuse” to calm tempers and tensions and avoid a repeat of 2017, when an egg thrown at Macron hit him on the head.

Emmanuel Macron at the 2017 show, where he was hit on the head by an egg. Photograph: Vincent Isore/IP3/Getty Images

Attempts by France’s prime minister, Gabriel Attal, to appease farmers with a number of measures including a €400m (£340m) aid package for the sector have failed to stop the protests.

The Elysée hoped Macron’s offer to hold a debate in one of the animal rings at the salon on the “future of French agriculture” would further clear the air.

Instead of putting out the fire, however, the idea added fuel to it. Several farmers’ union leaders said they would shun the debate on learning that a controversial environmental collective called Les Soulèvements de la Terre had been invited to take part. The Élysée swiftly denied any formal invitation had been issued, but the damage had been done.

Late on Friday, Macron confirmed the debate was off.

“The international Salon d’Agriculture is an important moment for all our farmers and for the nation as a whole. Everyone must respect it.

“The agriculture unions wanted this show to be different from ‘just another show’. They wanted an open ‘debate’. They are now calling for it to be cancelled. Duly noted,” he tweeted.

He added: “I’ll be there to open it and will meet all those who want to have an exchange of views, as I do every year.”

The president of the powerful FNSEA union, Arnaud Rousseau, had described the debate as “intolerable cynicism” that showed “they [the government] understand nothing of agricultural problems”. Inviting Les Soulèvements de la Terre, he added was “an unacceptable provocation for farmers”.

Farmers protest on the Pont Mirabeau in Paris on Friday. Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

In the run-up to European elections in June in which Macron’s Renaissance party is trailing badly in the polls behind the far – right Rassemblement National, agriculture is high on the political agenda.

French farmers have been demonstrating their anger at a range of issues including claims of increased bureaucracy from EU regulations, controls on pesticide use, rising fuel costs and unfair competition from abroad. The scale and fury of the protests has surprised officials.

The Salon is viewed as an annual opportunity presidents, politicians and Parisians, seen as out-of-touch with rural issues, to make contact with le terroir; which literally translates as soil or earth but is also a concept encompassing the environment, climate and even the sense of geographical place and a relationship to the land. It is also a chance for farmers and producers to show off their animals and products and remind the public who is feeding them.

The first agriculture show was held in 1844, but it has existed in its current form since 1964, when it was reintroduced by France’s wartime leader, Charles de Gaulle.

Several presidents and prime ministers have since braved the farmers’ wrath.

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Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was greeted by applause and whistles in 1977, and the Socialist Édith Cresson, whose appointment in 1981 as agriculture minister was described as a “real provocation” by farmers who objected to a woman holding the post, was the target of numerous insults and misogynistic attacks.

Édith Cresson at the 1983 show. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In 1999, the environment minister, Dominique Voynet, had to cut her visit short after farmers ransacked her office.

Jacques Chirac, who was given the Order of Agricultural Merit – nicknamed the Leek award – was considered a man of the land, close to rural life, and enjoyed the Salon, tucking into dishes, drinking beer and patting animals.

His successor Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to the 2008 show was a disaster after he told a farmer who refused to shake his hand to “piss off, you sad bastard”, causing widespread outrage.

François Hollande was heckled at the show in 2016 by farmers who claimed they were facing their “worst ever crisis” and turned their back on the president. They then tore down the agriculture ministry stand, requiring riot police to intervene.

Macron holds the record for the length of his visits. The 2017 egg incident failed to dampen his enthusiasm for the Salon and he spent 12 hours there in 2018 and 14 hours the next year.

The president has never shied from a heated exchange, but Elysée officials are genuinely concerned that Saturday’s visit could be marred by protests. A poll for Le Figaro found that 91% of French people asked supported the farmers and 85% held the government responsible for the crisis.

On Friday, hours before the 60th show opened, a convoy of tractors carried out a go-slow operation holding up rush-hour traffic on the Paris ring road, a group of farmers in the south-east dumped manure in front of the local authority building and other farmers blocked supermarkets. More protests are expected.

The Salon president, Jean-Luc Poulain, said he expected “virile” exchanges during Macron’s visit.

“It’s going to be a show full of explanations, a show that could be a little virile – you can be virile and respectful – because the agricultural world needs precise answers right away about what is being done and when,” he said.

source: theguardian.com