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French farmers block highways to step up pressure on government

By Sarah Meyssonnier, Marco Trujillo and Noemie Olive

LONGVILLIERS, France (Reuters) -Long lines of tractors blocked highways near Paris and across France on Monday, as angry farmers sought to put pressure on the government to do more to help them face inflation, compete with cheap imports and make a living.

The protests follow similar action in other European countries, including Germany and Poland, ahead of European Parliament elections in June in which the far right, for whom farmers represent a growing constituency, is seen making gains.

"It's just too much, we're really fed up," said 46-year-old farmer Geraldine Grillon, speaking at a blockade on the A10 highway south of Paris.

Grillon blamed President Emmanuel Macron and the European Union - where many agricultural rules, and subsidies, are decided - for the farmers' woes.

Macron "couldn't care less" about farmers, she said. Behind her, a banner on a stack of hay bales read: "Macron, answer us."

It's that type of comment that has prompted the government, wary of seeing the protests escalate and with an eye on the European elections, to drop plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel and promise to ease environmental regulations.

France also said it would push its EU peers to agree to ease regulations on fallow farmland and promised that more measures would be announced shortly.

With farmers angry over cheap imports, Macron has insisted to the European Commission that it was impossible to conclude trade deal negotiations with South America's Mercosur bloc and understands the EU has put an end to the talks, his office said on Monday.

Farmers' organisations, which have in particular objected to the Mercosur talks, said they want more and would bloc roads as long as needed.

"Our objective is to put pressure on the government, so that we can quickly find a solution for a way out of the crisis," Arnaud Rousseau, head of the powerful farmers' union FNSEA, said on RTL radio.

Many farmers had attached flags and banners to their tractors. One tractor was carrying a sign that read "Angry farmer", another read: "Too many taxes, too many rules, no income to live on."

EU TALKS

Macron will make a push for more pro-farming policies at an EU summit on Thursday, Farming Minister Marc Fesneau said. An Elysee source said Macron would also discuss this with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Farmers must meet certain conditions to receive EU subsidies - including a requirement to devote 4% of farmland to "non-productive" areas where nature can recover. That can be done by leaving land lying fallow.

Two EU officials told Reuters the EU's executive Commission was looking into changing the fallow land rule, as requested by France, among other options to respond to the farmers' concerns.

The Commission had already temporarily exempted farmers from the rule in response to the Ukraine war and food security concerns.

Belgian farmers also blocked highways in southern Belgium and parked tractors near to the EU Parliament in Brussels. Some 30-40 tractors were parked up on the E19 road just south of the Belgian capital on Monday morning, many farmers having spent the night in their cabs.

"Seeing that it was starting up in other countries, we thought ... maybe if we all get together we will be stronger in the eyes of the EU," cereal and egg farmer Jean Riz said. "We would like the EU to shoulder its responsibilities."

(Additional reporting by Gus Trompiz, Elizabeth Pineau, Tassilo Hummel, Sybille de la Hamaide and Michel Rose in Paris and Sudip Kar-Gupta, Kate Abnett, Christian Levaux in Brussels; Writing by Ingrid Melander and Geert de Clercq; Editing by Alex Richardson, Kylie MacLellan and Nick Macfie)