Macron visits French farm fair amid rural anger, decline


PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron pledged Saturday to protect European farming standards and culinary traditions threatened by aggressive foreign trade practices that see food as a “product like any other.”

Macron’s speech at his country’s premier agriculture fair was aimed at assuaging French farmers’ anger at government policies seen as favoring urban elites and neglecting a heartland cherished for producing famed cheeses and wines.

Europe’s “civilization of eating well, of gastronomy, of the art of living” is now threatened by world powers that pursue aggressive trade policies and “consider food a product like any other,” without taking into account environmental, health or culinary concerns, Macron said.

Macron proposed using block-chain technology to trace the source of food and putting Europe in the “avant-garde of agricultural technology.”

He spoke amid European Union talks on the bloc’s next agricultural aid plan, a major source of funding for French farmers. He appealed for unity at those talks and argued against calls to re-nationalize French farming policy.

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“In agriculture, just like in many other areas, we must invent a new global deal. Yes, we must be on the offensive, carrying out a deep reform of trade policies,” said Macron, who didn’t shy away from engaging in technical conversations with farmers as he walked past their stands.

Along his tour, Macron was offered a mini-hamburger made of Cantal cheese and Salers beef, a famous breed native to central France.

He appealed to French farmers to view their livelihoods in a global context, but many are struggling under day-to-day debt and uncertainty about the future.

“Our first concern is Europe-related, because the norms are not the same for everybody,” said Philippe Monod, a dairy farmer. “We are concerned about the trade between Europe and the rest of the world. You have produces coming from Chile or Russia, with regulations a lot less strict and cheaper prices.”

Macron is seen by many in rural France as epitomizing out-of-touch city elites, and many French farmers want more government help to face growing foreign competition.

Still, apart from a few boos, Macron was treated with respect during his visit at the Salon d’Agriculture. He met with dairy farmers, pork producers, vintners and others as he tried to tackle their concerns head-on by spending all day Saturday at the fair.

The yearly Salon has long been a key event of the French political calendar, with French presidents often using the event to test their popularity. Jacques Chirac used to spend whole days at the fair drinking and speaking with farmers while patting their cows. Back in 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy was involved in a spat with man who refused to shake his hand and the former president hit back with an insult.

Security was tight for Macron’s visit Saturday, which came as yellow vest protesters held anti-government protests around Paris and other cities for a 15th straight weekend.

Macron, whose approval ratings have bounced back in recent weeks, was booed at last year’s farm fair over plans to ban a popular pesticide and trade deals.

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