Cocks crow, farmers protest as Paris farm expo kicks off

Paris (AFP) - Angry farmers facing ruin heckled President Francois Hollande and tore down the agriculture ministry's pavilion as France's annual farm fair kicked off Saturday.

City dwellers looking to get in touch with their rustic roots flocked to the flagship farm expo against the backdrop of a deeply distressed agricultural sector, which saw farmer frustrations boil over.

Five members of the main farmers' union FNSEA were arrested after the protesters destroyed the stand's walls and furniture, the union said.

They wanted to "say loud and clear at the stand... that this country's agricultural producers don't feel like citizens," FNSEA secretary-general Dominique Barreau told AFP. "That's the exasperation, that's where we are!"

Earlier, livestock farmers booed and whistled as Hollande and Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll arrived to inaugurate the nine-day event in southern Paris set to attract some 700,000 visitors to the vast Porte de Versailles exhibition centre.

"I hear the cries of distress," said Hollande, who plans to seek re-election in 15 months despite dismal approval ratings. "If I am here today it's to show that there is national solidarity."

France has seen months of nationwide protests, with farmers blocking roads with their tractors and dumping manure outside government offices, generally enjoying broad public support.

At the exhibition centre, excited children gawked at massive cows, giggled at suckling pigs and timidly reached into cages to pet rabbits amid the hay-strewn aisles.

"It's good for little Parisians to see real cows," said homemaker Brigitte Bruneau, 59.

Angelique Mellion, with six-year-old Tao in tow, said she came "to teach my son about agriculture and to taste regional products. So we're both happy."

- 'Here to discuss things' -

Despite the widespread despair in the farming sector, exhibitors were loath to boycott the event.

"We are here even if our heart isn't in it," said Florent Dornier of the Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers) union.

Pig farmer Philippe Vasseur from the Sarthe region agreed, saying: "That would be too bad, because these visitors are also our consumers. We are here to discuss things."

Truffle-grower Narcisse Perez, wearing an enormous black felt hat from the southwest Perigord region, seemed happier with his lot, unfazed by the effects of clement weather on his crop, which he harvests using both pigs and dogs.

"The truffle is capricious," he said. "You have to adapt."

And honey maker Luquet Francis, 42, says his bees in the central Limousin region are little threatened by weedkillers and pesticides because there are no mega-farms in the area.

The cavernous hall devoted to regional specialities is a grazer's delight, with visitors free to taste slices of Auvergne sausage, samples of Loire Valley wines, chunks of Cantal cheese... each from a unique and cherished terroir, or soil.

- 'Political beauty contest' -

But pain lies behind the bonhomie.

Laurent Pinatel, spokesman of the national small farmers group Confederation Paysanne, told AFP earlier the French farm sector "is experiencing its worst crisis ever" with some 5,000 farmers leaving each year.

The government says more than 40,000 farms are in extreme distress.

Cindy Papin, 24, was visiting from the northwest, where many of the most violent protests have occurred.

"It's the cradle of milk and pork production," she said. "More and more livestock farmers are committing suicide."

The beef, pork and milk sectors have seen prices collapse because of declining sales to China and especially a Russian embargo on most Western food imports in retaliation for sanctions over the Ukraine crisis.

In addition wholesalers, engaged in a years-long price war, are demanding ever deeper cuts from suppliers, who are in turn squeezing farmers.

"We are not asking for a decent living, we want to live full stop," Marion Quartier, a dairy farmer in the northeastern Aube region, adding that consumers "no longer know what things cost."

The Salon de l'Agriculture is a must on the calendar of any ambitious politician, and ahead of next year's election, the glad-handing -- and the "stroking of cows' behinds" made virtually compulsory by earthy former president Jacques Chirac -- is the order of the day.

But the FNSEA warned: "It's out of the question for the fair to become a political beauty contest once again."

Nevertheless, Hollande did not fail to make a stop to admire the fair's mascot, a Bazadais cow from southwestern France named Cerise (Cherry).