Prime Minister Gabriel Attal promised more aid for French agriculture on Tuesday and vowed to shield it from “unfair competition” in an attempt to appease protesting farmers, but many appeared unmoved by his efforts as they blocked major roads around Paris for a second day.
The barricades of tractors and bales of hay caused miles of traffic bottlenecks in the Paris region, but protesters have not encircled the city. Neither have they crippled the French capital itself, which has experienced only limited disruptions so far.
Still, the farmers have become a growing thorn in the French government’s side as it struggles to respond to a wide-ranging mix of demands on farming subsidies, environmental regulations and foreign competition — to name only a few.
“Our agriculture is an asset: not only because it feeds us, in the truest sense of the word, but because it is one of the foundations of our identity and traditions,” Mr. Attal said in his first major policy speech since his appointment by President Emmanuel Macron this month.
“There must be a French agricultural exception,” he added in a wide-ranging presentation of his government’s plans before France’s lower house of Parliament, an appearance scheduled before the protests spread last week.
But Mr. Attal also acknowledged that there was no one-size-fits-all answer to the crisis, even as Mr. Macron vowed on Tuesday to press the farmers’ demands at an upcoming European Union summit.
“Everything will not be fixed in several weeks,” Mr. Attal warned.
Whether farmers will keep up their barricades for weeks or merely days is unclear. On Tuesday the authorities were forced to close off whole sections of at least nine major highways around the capital because of the protests, sometimes for several miles.
Protesting farmers also blocked roads near Lyon, dumped hay or manure in front of government buildings in several towns, and briefly blocked a handful of supermarkets accused of buying farm produce under its production costs. Farmers also tried to block access to the main airport serving Toulouse by setting bales of hay on fire.
Last week Mr. Attal had tried to appease the protesters by scrapping plans to end state subsidies for fuel used by farmers and by vowing more rapid aid for cattle sickened by a hemorrhagic disease that recently hit the southwest, among other measures.
On Tuesday Mr. Attal made a handful of new announcements. Delayed European farming subsidies will be paid out by March 15, he promised, cattle farmers will get new tax breaks, and wine growers will get an emergency aid package by the end of the week. The government will announce additional measures in the coming days, he added.
But that did little to budge the barricading protesters.
“I didn’t expect much,” said Cyrille Milard, a farmer who grows grain about 50 miles southeast of the Paris, in the Seine-et-Marne region.
“We know we won’t get all the answers to our demands right away,” he said. “But there are things that the government can do immediately,” he added, like cutting back even more bureaucratic regulations, though he acknowledged some rules could only be negotiated at the E.U. level.
Mr. Milard, the president of the Seine-et-Marne chapter of France’s main farmers union, spoke on the phone from his car as he led a 100-tractor convoy back to a barricade on the A5 highway that connects Paris to the east of France, after a brief incursion closer to the capital.
About 350 farmers are at the barricade with about 250 tractors, he said, and have organized meals and sleeping areas, with regular reinforcements from other regions. There are about 8 or so similar barricades around Paris, within 5 to 25 miles of the capital.
“They’re eager for a fight,” Mr. Milard said. “It’s hard to keep them at a standstill on a highway.”
Mainstream farmers’ unions have urged calm protests. But that strategy is being challenged by smaller, more radical groups. Some have suggested disrupting the wholesale food market in Rungis, just south of Paris — one of the largest in Europe, and a crucial source of produce for the capital region.
The authorities have already deployed armored police vehicles there to head off any incursions. Police forces have also tried to delay a convoy of about 200 tractors that left southwestern France on Monday with Rungis in its sights.
Protesters are now looking ahead to a European Union summit that starts on Thursday in Brussels, where Mr. Macron is expected to lobby on behalf of French farmers.
Mr. Macron, in his first extensive public statement since the start of the protests, said on Tuesday that the solution to the anger was “not less Europe, it is sometimes more Europe,” noting that the E.U.’s farming subsidies were a crucial part of French farmers’ income.
“Blaming everything on Europe would be too easy,” he said at a news conference in Stockholm, where he was on a state visit.
But Mr. Macron also said he would meet on Thursday with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the E.U. Commission, to discuss E.U.-level solutions to the farming protests, which have also erupted this month in Germany, Spain and Belgium.
Many French farmers, for instance, are opposed to a free-trade agreement currently being negotiated between the bloc and Mercosur, an alliance of South American countries, because they say there not enough guarantees that those countries will have to apply the same environmental and sanitary standards as European farmers. France has long opposed the deal in its current form, but French farming unions want it to be scrapped entirely.
Mr. Macron said he would demand “clarity” on the Mercosur-E.U. deal, which he said should not be signed as it now reads; press for “clear measures” on increased Ukrainian poultry and grain imports, which he said had caused disruptions on European food markets; and ask for more flexibility on certain European environmental regulations.