Given the traditional importance of agriculture in France and the French tradition of strikes, it’s no surprise to learn that the protesting French farmers have a song. Although the refrain of the’Complainte du Paysan’ (The Peasants’ Complaint) is not as powerful as the melody of the Marseillaise, it’s still good enough to express discontent while sending the most important message of the farmers which is ’Je ne demande pas le bout du monde / Je veux simplement exister’ – in English, ’I’m not asking too much / I just want to exist!’
The importance of initiatives like this should never be underestimated since even less has been enough to trigger major changes. Thematic pieces, of course, of little value alone – they must be backed by a crowd that articulates valid criticism and demands towards a particular government or organisation. A critical mass with a voice and a definite goal.
As for protest songs, it’s worth mentioning ’L’Estaca’ (The Stake), a song released at the end of the 1960s in Spain which is still chanted by followers of the Catalan independence movement. One decade later, this song had its Polish version, ’Mury’ (Walls) which became the unofficial anthem of the anti-communist Solidarność movement. The same melody, adapted into Russian and infused with local political content (’Steni ruchnut’ – The Walls Will Fall), became the song of the people protesting against the regime in Belarus in 2020.
But after this short sidestep, back to the farmers’ protests currently taking place across Europe. In these protests, there is now a critical mass and a corresponding idea, as well as specific demands. It would probably be a mistake to think that farmers are addressing their government alone – their crtiticism and demands are more directed at the EU as a whole – the existing machinery and the bad regulations, as well as the new strategies that are about to be implemented in Europe.
In line with Western European mindset, Western farmers carry on their protests in a manner that enables them to attract public to their objectives, thus building a nation-wide solidarity. This is the idea behind the fact that French protesters have not only a song but a motto as well (’This week and as long as necessary!’) and the Dutch ones also have their own T-shirt with their own slogan (No farmers – no food!). In order to create unity, a common identifier is needed such as the yellow vest that became the symbol of the rallies in Paris a couple of years ago.
As waves of farmers’ and tractor drivers’ protests are sweeping over Europe, the current leadership of the EU should face sharp criticism in crucial fields such as the CAP (EU’s Common Agricultural Policy) and the Green New Deal, a green transition project forced by von der Leyen’s European Commission.
Although the protests may seem to be inspired by the same problems everywhere, there are quite substantial differences between the concerns of farmers in Western Europe and those of their Eastern European fellow farmers. What they have in common is that at the root of the problems, there are general issues such as unfair competition and unfavourable market prices which in each country are complemented by specific local problems.
While Western European farmers complain mostly about issues such as cuts in agricultural subsidies, high fuel prices, high taxes and the import of Argentinian beef into Europe, Eastern European agricultural producers protest against the flooding of local markets with cheap and often contaminated and genetically modified Ukrainian grain, eggs, honey and others, pushing prices down and local producers out of the market.
In the context of the outbreak of the farmers’ protest, it is necessary to highlight the link between the protests and the adoption of the new €50 billion European financial aid package for Ukraine which was initially negotiated by the European Council at the end of 2023 and unanimously approved at the end of January 2024.
Emotions have run high when it became clear in many countries across Europe that while no more funds and subsidies are available to support local farmers, governments and Brussels are determined to continue funding Ukraine.
As the EU leadership relatively quickly realised that the far right was preparing to exploit, in a very populist manner, the farmers’ protests, the European Commission was pushed to make concessions: first of all, it pledged to tackle market turbulence caused by Ukrainian products pouring into the EU.
With the Commission’s decision related to Ukrainian agricultural products, one chapter in the European farmers’ protests seems to come to its end, in addition, French farmers also can hope for changes in the ongoing EU-Latin America agricultural negotiations.
Whether this will be enough to get French, German, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Hungarian and other farmers off the streets and back to farming again is an open question. However, the situation of European agriculture will undoubtably be one of the main campaign topics of the European elections in June. No later than by mid-June it will be crystal clear how far the French peasants’ song has echoed.
Finally, if you think that the farmers’ protests have only highlighted the problems of one specific sector, you are wrong, since the protests have made it clear that there is a general dissatisfaction in the EU concerning the way things are run in Brussels. This is exactly what should be considered the most important conclusion of the farmers’ protests.