The demonstrations, called by the country's major farming organisation, the FNSEA, to demand better compensation for French livestock farmers, had been timed to coincide with the EU summit in Florence.
With agreement in sight on ending the embargo on British beef, however, the demonstrations turned into rabid expressions of resentment against the British government, which French farmers blame for starting the crisis, and against British farmers, whose practices they blame for the spreading "mad cow" disease.
In Strasbourg, a large effigy of John Major was burned on a huge bonfire in front of the European parliament building. at the Channel port of Caen, a Brittany Ferries ship, the Normandie, was prevented from docking on Thursday night by hundreds of farmers blocking its ramps with lorries. Passengers disembarked after a 13 hour delay when riot police removed the protesters by force; and in Le Mans, where piles of hay and rubber tyres were set alight, six people were hurt when police used teargas and hoses to disperse protesters.
The protests erupted the length and breadth of France, from Brittany and the northern regions, where most of France's 20 declared cases of BSE have been diagnosed, through the agricultural areas of the West and South-west to and the Massif Central. In Dijon, police used tear gas against farmers trying to parade their prized Charolais cows to the town hall.
In Paris, farmers waving banners damning Britain and claiming that their cows were fed "only on grass", brought a dozen Friesians up the Seine on a barge labelled "Noah's Ark".In President Chirac's home region of the Correze, protesters decked out town halls and road signs in black.
The FNSEA decided to proceed with the planned demonstrations despite the French government's announcement of an improved compensation package earlier in the week. Farmers say that the price of 160 francs offered for each unsaleable cow is far below the previous market price and are demanding 1,500 francs.
Officially, France admits to a 25 per cent fall in beef sales since the BSE crisis began in March, but shopkeepers report a decline of 40 per cent and more, despite a government-sponsored labelling scheme to identify French-produced meat. Traders specialising in offal have been particularly affected.
The return of consumer confidence observed in Britain after the first month of the crisis did not extend to France. Reports a week ago that French farmers bought potentially contaminated British feed, even after it had been banned in Britain, prompted a further fall in meat sales.