French farmers block roads as data adds to Hollande woes

SAINT-ARNOULT-EN-YVELINES, France Thu Nov 21, 2013 12:51pm GMT

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SAINT-ARNOULT-EN-YVELINES, France (Reuters) - Farmers blocked roads around Paris with tractors on Thursday in a protest against rising taxes, adding to President Francois Hollande's troubles as surprising new data showed France risks slipping into a new recession.

Anger at taxation is growing and sometimes violent protests in recent weeks have been aimed especially at a planned levy on road freight which trade unions in agriculture and the food industry say will cost thousands of jobs at a time when French unemployment remains stuck at 11 percent.

A fireman died in a road accident during Thursday's protests, which snarled up traffic round the capital for hours.

"Fed up with taxes," read one of many placards on the 30 tractors that blocked the Paris-Bordeaux motorway near Saint Arnoult, 50 km (30 miles) southwest of the capital, at dawn. Similar blockades snarled rush-hour traffic on at least five major routes into Paris from the west and north, police said.

The fireman was killed when his vehicle crashed near a blockade and six policemen were injured in another collision linked to the protest, the transport minister said.

Urging an end to the protests, Frederic Cuvillier added: "Blocking roads without any security or precautionary measures is simply too dangerous."

Farmers unions called on the tractor drivers to make way around midday, but denied causing accidents: "It was a great success," union representative Francois LeCoq told Reuters TV.

"It's only the start. Mr. Hollande has to listen to us."

One farmer, Christophe Lerebours, said the protests pointed to "general dissatisfaction" across the country: "People will have to realise that today it's farmers but tomorrow it will be the truck drivers," he said.

"After that it will be employees in the private sector."

JOSTLING FOR AID

At issue is what protesters have started to call "over-taxation," including an "eco-tax" on road freight - aimed at promoting behaviour better for the environment - and a planned rise in value added sales taxes on January 1.

At 44.2 percent of gross domestic product, France's overall tax burden is one of the heaviest in the world, behind only Denmark and Sweden, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Another factor in protests has been jostling among different types of farmer for EU aid. French cereal growers - the driving force behind Thursday's blockades - reject moves by Hollande's government under which EU subsidies and other aid will be focused on poorer livestock farmers.

Cereal farmers in the Ile-de-France region around Paris are the country's most prosperous, according to government data, earning on average 97,800 euros ($131,700) in 2012. Cattle breeders in the central Limousin region earned an annual 15,500 euros, about 2,000 euros above the minimum wage.

Jose Bove, a high-profile campaigner for small farmers and a member of the European Parliament for the Green party which backs the eco-tax, took to Twitter to condemn the protests by wealthy grain growers as "irresponsible and obscene".

Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll shrugged off calls for his resignation and told Le Figaro newspaper that compromises had already been made with the farming lobby.

"We are always open to dialogue," he said.

Hollande's popularity ratings are at record lows for a president in the 55-year-old Fifth Republic, with voters angry not just at persistently high unemployment but also a series of policies on issues from tax to immigration. ($1 = 0.7428 euros)

(Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas; Muriel Boselli; Writing By Alexandria Sage; Editing by Mark John and Alastair Macdonald)

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