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Farmers ransack Paris ministry

SCORES OF farmers smashed up the office of the French environment minister yesterday, throwing furniture and documents into the street and roughing up police and officials in the worst political violence seen in Paris for several years.

Another agricultural mob attacked the elite civil service college, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), spreading manure and flour and hurling paving stones at the police. More than 200 farmers were arrested. Police said 15 would be kept in cells overnight and probably charged.

The demonstrators were protesting against planned cuts in guaranteed EU farm prices and against plans by the Environment Minister, Dominique Voynet, to tax agricultural pesticides and weed killers. Ms Voynet, leader of the French green party, is a hate figure in rural France because of her drive to implement EU-wide rules on the shooting of migratory birds.

She was away at the time but her office was laid waste and members of her staff were physically assaulted and abused. The French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, issued a statement last night condemning "this violence with the greatest possible firmness". He said the ringleaders would be prosecuted and called on farm unions, due to meet him today, to disassociate themselves from "such agitation".

The national leaderships of the unions immediately did so but the demonstrators claimed to be acting with the blessing of local branches of farming unions, and the young farmers' movement, in the cereal belt around Paris and in the western part of the Loire valley.

About 100 farmers burst into the environment ministry just before lunchtime, taking the few police guards at the gate by surprise. Hurling corn and flour, they charged to the fifth floorand ripped the door to the minister's office off its hinges. Staff were roughed up and insulted, and papers and chairs were thrown from the windows.