Why French farmers look to Le Pen to end worries

By David Chazan

Supporters of far-right French leader presidential candidate Marine Le Pen wave banners as she speaks in Nantes, western France. Photo / AP
Supporters of far-right French leader presidential candidate Marine Le Pen wave banners as she speaks in Nantes, western France. Photo / AP

Bertrand Hourdel proudly pats one of his pigs, but the Brittany farmer is painfully aware that when he sells them, his profits, if any, will be slim.

He blames the EU's "straitjacket" of regulations and political inaction for French farming's deepest crisis since World War II.

Brittany's verdant pastures and ancient farmhouses are a picture of bucolic bliss, but anger in the nation's leading agricultural region is shifting sentiment in favour of Marine Le Pen's anti-EU Front National.

"If France left the EU, I hope things would get better," said Hourdel as he watched his sows bedding down.

France is the biggest beneficiary of EU farm aid, but more than a third of farmers earned less than €4200 last year, squeezed by falling food prices and cheaper imports from other member states.

Some recorded six-figure losses and many were driven into debt. More than 600 livestock farms went bankrupt - a record. On average, one farmer committed suicide every two days, according to France's public health agency.

"We pay a lot into the EU and they give little back," Hourdel said. "We're paying for subsidies that go to eastern Europe, financing countries that are competing with us."

Hourdel, who also grows crops on his 120ha farm, collects €40,000 a year in subsidies, but says his expenses are much higher. He would prefer to see EU aid replaced by a national system of quotas and subsidies, as Le Pen proposes.

Hourdel struggles to make repayments on €3 million in loans.

"The bank manager phones me three times a week. In 1999, I was selling pork for the equivalent of €2 per kilo and now it's down to €1.40. I have to pay five employees and I can't get by without them. We all work flat out."

Like many other farmers, Hourdel, 53, used to vote for mainstream conservatives. Now he feels that Le Pen is the only presidential candidate this year who is genuinely offering farmers a solution.

Imports of cheaper German pork and milk and Spanish fruit have badly hurt French farmers. Labour costs are higher in France, partly because of taxes and compulsory health and welfare contributions. Also, German abattoirs employ temporary workers from eastern Europe on lower pay rates.

Francois Hollande, the French President, warned against the country leaving the EU. "We must remember the agriculture we had without Europe and think of what agriculture can be like with Europe," he said.

Conservative candidate Francois Fillon said he would "take immediate measures to ensure that farmers can make a decent living".

But Jerome Fourquet of the Institut Francais d'opinion polling firm said: "Farmers feel increasingly left out and they are being tempted by the Front National."

Hourdel added: "What I really want is is to be paid at a fair price for what I do, but that will never happen as things stand now.

"The EU has tied us up in a straitjacket of regulations so we can't compete with other member states. The only candidate who's talking about confronting this situation is Marine Le Pen. Saying you're going to vote for her isn't the taboo it used to be."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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