The French government today (7 September) pledged aid worth EUR25m to the country’s produce sector after a summer of protests by farmers.

Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire unveiled an “action plan” to help struggling farmers and make the sector more competitive.

The bulk of the money – EUR15m – will be handed to farmers needing financial assistance. The rest of the cash will be used to modernise and restructure farms.

This summer, French farmers had protested against what they said were cheap foreign imports into the country.

Unions claimed that French retailers were “blackmailing” produce farmers into selling at below cost-price. They also underlined the higher labour costs of growers in France compared to counterparts in Spain and Italy and have called for market regulation at EU level.  

In a statement, the Ministry of Agriculture said the fruit and vegetable sector had been hit by low prices, a situation that was exacerbated by poor weather and the German E. coli outbreak.

The outbreak, which started in May, was wrongly blamed on cucumbers from Spain and led to produce sales falling across Europe. The continent’s farmers federation Copa-Cogeca estimated that growers were losing EUR400m a week. By July, health officials had identified fenugreek seeds from Egypt imported in Germany as the most likely cause of the outbreak, which sickened thousands and killed 50.

In its statement, the French Ministry of Agriculture said today that the “crisis” in the produce sector in 2011 demonstrated that European regulations needed to be improved.

The Ministry has put forward proposals, including a system of insurance to stabilise farmer incomes, mechanisms to promote European produce to boost consumption and a strengthening of farmers’ bargaining power.

Le Maire discussed the proposals in Paris yesterday with his Spanish counterpart Rosa Aguilar. The two countries plan to revisit the proposals on 20 September at the next meeting of EU Agriculture Ministers.