Farmers protest but violence ebbs

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The Independent Online
French farmers continued their protests yesterday over collapsing beef sales, with several thousand cattle farmers marching peacefully through La Roche sur Yonne in western France and another 500 demonstrating in front of Bordeaux's city hall.

One banner accused President Jacques Chirac of "bending over backwards to please the English", but there was none of the disruption and violence of the previous day, when passengers were stranded on a Channel ferry for 13 hours, John Major's effigy was burnt in Strasbourg and there were scenes of riot and mayhem in half a dozen French cities.

Britons caught up in the latest protests might have wondered why the authorities were so reluctant to intervene. The French would deny their farmers are a law unto themselves, but they do seem to have a tacit compact with France that gives them special leeway. The main reaction from city dwellers to the protests was support for the farmers' case or a resigned, "The farmers are at it again".

The mild response this weekend also reflected factors peculiar to the beef crisis. The "mad cow" affair has encouraged an unusual degree of national co-ordination among France's farmers. The latest nationwide protests were organised more than two weeks ago by the biggest farmers' organisation, the FNSEA, and the young farmers' union. The latter have been especially active, making clandestine visits to the UK to track meat and livestock lorries and ensure they are not bound for France. They have also mounted spot checks on abbatoirs and wholesalers in France.

Last Wednesday, when the French government announced a new aid package for livestock farmers and agreement on ending the embargo on British beef looked likely, the FNSEA considered calling off the protests. But the organisation decided to proceed, judging the cancellation would have been ignored, leading to less disciplined and even more violent protests.