The grapes of wrath: depressed French wine producers bomb Government offices

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Terrorist attacks by radical wine producers on government offices in the south of France yesterday served notice that the country's wine crisis may be spinning out of control.

Terrorist attacks by radical wine producers on government offices in the south of France yesterday served notice that the country's wine crisis may be spinning out of control.

Sticks of dynamite were thrown at agriculture ministry offices in Montpellier and Carcassonne in the early hours, causing serious damage but no injuries. A car was also burned outside ministry offices in Nîmes.

The attacks, which were condemned by mainstream wine producers' associations, were claimed by a group called comité régional d'action viticole (Crav).

The same group was responsible for incendiary attacks on supermarkets and explosions outside the offices of wine traders in the Languedoc-Roussillon area last month.

The letters "CRAV" - a group unknown until recent weeks - were daubed on the walls of the offices attacked yesterday. There was also a telephone call claiming responsibility to the French news agency, AFP.

The agriculture minister, Dominique Bussereau, said that the explosions were the work of "a few isolated individuals" who were "seriously damaging the image and the legitimate efforts of the entire wine industry".

Christian Dufour, the deputy director of the agriculture and forestry offices that were attacked in Montpellier, said that "terrorist actions of this kind can only bring harm to the wine business".

Violent demonstrations by the small wine producers of Languedoc - the largest vineyards in the world - have been a feature of recurrent wine crises in France since the 1950s. Fears are growing that a mass demonstration by wine growers in Narbonne on 20 April could degenerate into serious violence.

The wine growers in Languedoc - both the mainstream organisations and the unidentified radicals calling themselves Crav - are demanding that the €70m (£48m) in subsidies and special assistance for exports already promised by the French government be increased.

The whole of the lower and middle range of the French wine industry has been plunged into crisis in the past two years by a slump in domestic demand and the capture of markets in Britain and elsewhere by wines from Australia, Chile, Italy and the US.

Previous wine crises in France have mostly concerned the over production of low-grade red table wines. France, still the largest exporters of wines by value in the world, finds itself with surpluses of medium range red and white wines from regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Although there is widespread anger throughout the French wine industry, the most violent reactions have been in the vast vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon, which extend along the southern coastal plain from Montpellier to the Spanish border.

Many Languedoc growers have made great efforts and investments, to improve the reputation of their wines in the past 20 years. They now find themselves in the same crisis of over-production and low prices as in the 1980s.

"The government had better respond clearly to our needs before the demonstration on 20 April," Denis Verdier, the president of the confederation of French wine cooperatives, said recently.

Apart from an increase in the €70m in special aid and €3m in export subsidies already promised, the wine growers are demanding more government cash and permission from the European Commission for the subsidised distillation of 2,500,000 hectolitres of red wine to reduce the French "wine lake", which is depressing wholesale wine prices. This is equivalent to removing 333 million bottles of wine from the market by turning them into industrial alcohol.

Brussels has promised to give a reply once similar requests have been received from Italy and Greece, which have surpluses of their own. In 2004, French wine exports fell 10 per cent in value - the sixth successive year of decline. Production of wine in terms of volume increased by 23 per cent.

Within France, wine consumption has fallen to 50 litres per adult per year, compared to 100 litres in the 1960s.