Traffic-blocking farmers now closing in on EU capital in a protest seeking better market conditions

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Tractors face military vehicles on a blocked highway, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024 in Chilly-Mazarin, south of Paris. Farmers have captured France's attention by showering government offices with manure and besieging Paris with traffic-snarling barricades of tractors and hay bales. Protesters say it's becoming harder than ever to make a decent living from their fields, greenhouses and herds. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

HALLE – Farmers blocked more traffic arteries across Belgium, France and Italy on Wednesday, as they sought to disrupt trade at major ports and other economic lifelines. They also moved in on Brussels on the eve of a major European Union summit, in a sustained push for better prices for their produce and less bureaucracy in their work.

While the days of mushrooming discontent have been largely peaceful, French police arrested 91 protesters who forced their way Wednesday into Europe's biggest food market, the Paris police chief said. Armored vehicles block entrances to the sprawling site at Rungis, south of the French capital.

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The protests had an immediate impact on Wednesday — the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, announced plans to shield farmers from cheap exports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons.

The plans still need to be approved by the bloc's 27 member states and European Parliament, but they amounted to a sudden and symbolic concession.

“I just would like to reassure them that we do our utmost to listen to their concerns. I think we are addressing two very important (concerns) of them right now,” European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said.

The rallies are part of farming protests across the EU and have shown how only a few hundred tractors can snarl traffic in capitals from Berlin to Paris, Brussels and Rome. Millions across the bloc have been facing disruptions and struggling to get to work, or seen their doctor’s appointments canceled because protests blocked their way.

“It obviously has a major economic impact. Not only for our company, but for many companies in Flanders and Belgium," said Sven Pieters of the ECS transport company in Belgium's Zeebrugge North Sea port.

In France, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin reported 100 protests around France involving about 10,000 farmers, and warned farmers encircling Paris that any attempt to block the Rungis market and airports, and to enter the capital, would be considered “red lines.”

Protesters put a big banner on the A6 highway, south of the French capital, writing: “Paris, let our farmers get through.''

A climax in Belgium is set for Thursday, when farmers plan to protest outside EU headquarters during a summit of government leaders. They will seek to get their issues on the summit agenda and win some concessions on the financial burdens they face and the increased competition from nations as far away as Chile and New Zealand.

“It is important that we listen to them,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said. “They face gigantic challenges,” from adapting to climate change to countering environmental pollution, he said.

Belgium currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, and De Croo said that he would address the issue during the summit as a late addition to an agenda centered on providing more aid to Ukraine as Russia’s full-scale invasion approaches nearly two years.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that he wants to hold off on a free trade deal with South American nations because of the vehement opposition of EU farmers and will discuss the issue at the summit.

Despite the widespread inconveniences, governments in the EU are treating protests, which have been mostly peaceful, with extreme caution.

Spanish farmers were also set to add their weight to the protests. Three main Spanish farming associations agreed to begin protests in the coming weeks to demand changes in what they describe as overly restrictive EU policies.

Back in France, protesting farmers sought to keep each other fed — and a sense of humor about camping out for days on hay-strewn highways en route to Paris.

Demonstrator Frank Chardon offered fresh croissants to some police on Wednesday near his tractor protest in Chilly-Mazarin east of Paris.

“French croissants, made with French flour, top quality,” he said.

"So we’re going to hand out croissants and you’re going to let us through ... I see you’re not finding this funny," he said. Undeterred, he tried again: “You open the cordon and that way we can drive through with our tractors?”


Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Alex Turnbull in Chilly-Mazarin, France, and Ciarán Giles in Madrid, contributed to this report.

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