The 2024 Farmer Protests: Europe’s Winter of Discontent

Valeria Álvarez

6 mins - 5 de Febrero de 2024, 07:00

Protests in France, particularly by farmers, have a tendency to target Spanish truckers. That this is somewhat expected does not excuse the fact. But it is more unusual for a French Prime Minister to level veiled accusations of unfair dealing or outright dumping, while at the same time advocating for a French exception and proposing state support measures. Meanwhile, this conflict between France and Spain is just a small part of a broader farmer protest sweeping a large and growing part of the European Union. These protests have the potential to strengthen far-right or populist parties in a European election year. Fear of an ascendant far right may be one of the factors behind the French Prime Minister’s recent outburst and policy proposals.

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Faced with a growing protest by angry farmers including road blockages, targeting of produce trucks from other EU countries, and a so-called siege of Paris, the French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal has proposed to write food sovereignty into national law, called for a French agricultural exception, and promised 150 million euros in support of French farmers, all while denouncing unfair competition from neighbouring countries. It is unclear just how to square this with the fact that those neighbouring countries are subject to the same European regulations as France, with France’s respect for EU state aid rules, and with the fact that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy exists mostly to appease French farmers in the first place. It is possible that PM Attal hasn’t thought this through, and that he is simply reacting to the threat of a protest movement that could parallel the course of the Gillets Jaunes before the Covid-19 pandemic. That Yellow Vest movement ended up forcing the hand of French President Emmanuel Macron. It was originally a protest of suburban and rural middle class, angry at rising fuel prices and tightening environmental regulation of their vehicles. There we may find a parallel with some of the causes and demands of the current farmer protest.

French politicians from the Socialist Segolène Royal to the Liberal Prime Minister have been jumping on the anti-Spanish bandwagon. This not only elicited a protest from Spain’s agriculture minister Luis Planas, but is also polarising farmers in Spain who are now preparing to launch their own protests. This is in the context of a broader protest movement affecting Poland, Romania, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Germany or Lithuania. Though there are national differences, farmers across Europe are generally upset about dropping produce prices, rising fuel costs, and competition from foreign imports. 

The fall in agricultural produce prices - though apparently not, or not to the same extent, in consumer food prices - came in the second year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The first year saw a spike in food prices worldwide. So, the current and ongoing drop may be just a statistical effect from the war-related spike, and prices may go back to trend over the next year. However, the last year has already been enough for discontent to set in, which has political consequences. The ECB reacting to inflation related to the Ukraine war by raising interest rates certainly hasn’t helped.  

This political discontent is likely to manifest itself at the European elections in May this year. In many countries North and East of the Alps, Agrarian parties of various stripes are fairly common. In France itself, not only the Green Party EELV has historical ties with the farmer movement, but also there is a Rurality movement that enjoyed some success as a conservative party in the 1990s, and in the 2000s under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. While agrarian parties have for a couple of centuries spanned the political spectrum, nowadays in Europe they tend to be eurosceptic, and to lean right-wing populist. 

In Spain there isn’t an independent agrarian party tradition, but currently the far-right party Vox is capitalising on rural resentment. In regions where the party governs with the People’s Party, it has already spearheaded conflicts with the Spanish Government and the European Commission over water resource management and sanitary and phytosanitary standards, advocating for the narrow interests of local farmers. The party, moreover, regularly rails against environmental regulations, the energy transition, and the 2030 agenda.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (National Rally) is a credible threat to the election of a mainstream President in 2027, after Emmanuel Macron serves his second and last term. On the shorter horizon, the far-right party might well win the European Elections in France, relegating Macron’s Renaissance (formerly La République en Marche) to second place. It did so already in 2019 in votes, but tied in seats.

In the wider European context, the Identity and Democracy group, and to a lesser extent the Conservatives and Reformists, may get a boost at the European elections from a rising vote for far-right parties as a result of the farmer protests. The two groups together are already larger than Renew, the Liberal group, and aspire to either become larger than even the Socialists, or to break the longstanding Christian Democrat - Social Democrat - Liberal alliance in the European Parliament by teaming up with the Christian Democrats as they often do at the national level. 

These are some of the threats that may have moved the Liberal French Prime Minister to adopt a more populist stance bordering on euroscepticism. For Macron’s party that’s a dangerous and perhaps uncharacteristic slide. In addition, the French President and his Prime Minister might do well to remember that, when faced with a populist party and a mainstream party adopting the populists’ agenda, voters often prefer the more extreme original to the moderate copy. 

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