PARIS: Francois Hollande was met with jeers from angry farmers at the start of the annual Paris agricultural show on Saturday, underlining the French president’s unpopularity in a week marked by a revolt within his Socialist party over labour reforms.
Television images showed Hollande being booed and whistled at as he slowly made his way with the help of security guards through crowds shouting insults. They also showed scuffles, and a farm ministry stand that had been torn down.
“I hear the cries of distress,” Hollande said in images broadcast on French television. “I prefer the anger to be expressed during the show than outside it.”
French livestock farmers say thousands of them could go out of business as a Russian embargo on Western food and a downturn in global dairy markets exacerbate competition from neighbours such as Germany and Spain, which they see benefiting from lower taxes and lighter regulation.
Top European Union agriculture official Commissioner Phil Hogan met with Le Foll and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in Paris this week, pledging to study French proposals to tackle the market downturn ahead of a March 14 meeting of EU farm ministers.
“Did we expect to hear an expression of anger? Yes, of course,” Farm Minister Stephane Le Foll later told French television, saying Hollande made the traditional visit to the politically important show as a “message of support”.
Hollande said on Saturday that he planned to review a 2008 law impacting relations between producers and the retail industry, which he said favoured retailers.
France is the EU’s biggest agricultural economy, with output worth 74 billion euros ($81 billion) in 2014, about 18 percent of the EU total.
Hollande’s Socialist party usually wins few votes among farmers, who tend to support conservative parties and have been increasingly turning to the populist National Front.
His government has been at pains to contain farmer protests as it struggles to bring down unemployment a year ahead of national elections. A poll in French daily Le Parisien published on Saturday showed 81 percent of 959 adults surveyed supported the protests.
Hollande’s approval rating fell 5 percentage points to 19 percent in February, its lowest since December 2014, a poll for weekly Le Journal du Dimanche published a week ago showed.
Earlier this week, Martine Aubry, a Socialist who introduced the 35-hour week as labour minister, and others published a severe criticism of Hollande’s corporate tax cuts and labour