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Angry French farmers block roads, spray manure at public building

By Stephane Mahe and Sybille de La Hamaide

PLOUISY, France (Reuters) -Protesting farmers blocked several roads across France on Wednesday, set bales of hay alight and sprayed liquid manure at a local prefecture to press the government to loosen regulations and help protect them from cheap imports and rising costs.

Farmers said the protests, with long lines of tractors snarling roads, would continue as long as their demands are not met, posing the first major challenge for new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal.

In the southwestern city of Agen, famous for its dried prunes, angry farmers set fire to bales of hay, old tyres and rubbish they had dumped in front of the wrought-iron gates of the prefecture, which represents the central state locally.

One truck sprayed liquid manure as dozens of police stood by without intervening, footage by BFM TV showed. Moments later, another truck lifted burning tyres and rubbish over the high gates and dumped it in the prefecture courtyard.

This shift in so far largely peaceful protests, which started last week, will be a challenge for a government which does not want to antagonise farmers but has also placed law-and-order as one of its top priorities.

Many farmers in the European Union's biggest agricultural producer struggle financially and say their livelihoods are threatened as food retailers are increasing pressure to bring down prices after a period of high inflation.

"Our costs keep increasing and this is not taken into account in what we are paid," dairy farmer Pascal Le Guern said at a road blockade in Plouisy, in Brittany.

Farmers cite a government tax on tractor fuel, cheap imports, water storage issues, price pressures from retailers and red tape and environmental rules among their grievances.

Arnaud Rousseau, head of the powerful FNSEA farming union, told France 2 TV the group would publish demands by the end of the day.

Fearing a spillover from farmer unrest in Germany, Poland and Romania, the French government has already postponed a draft farming law meant to help more people become farmers, saying it will beef up the measures and ease some regulations.

The government will soon make proposals, its spokeswoman Prisca Thevenot said earlier in the day, without giving details.

President Emmanuel Macron is also wary of farmers' growing support for the far right ahead of the European Parliament elections in June.

'UNFAIR COMPETITION'

"We won't stop (the protests) until our demands are met," 24-year old Pierre-Marie Henry, who works on a poultry farm, said at the same Plouisy rally. The EU elections would give farmers some leverage, he said.

"If they want to stay in power... they need to give us some answers," he said, taking issue with what he said was unfair competition from cheap Ukrainian poultry.

A small group of French farmers also protested near the headquarters of the European Parliament in Brussels.

As the EU's Green Deal of environmental policies is rolled out, farmers' increased work and costs need to be reflected in product prices, said Thomas Waitz, a Green EU lawmaker from Austria, who is also a farmer and beekeeper.

He urged the 27-member EU to make sure imported goods meet high environmental standards to avoid unfair competition.

In France, farmer discontent over price levels is particularly acute in the dairy sector, where producers say the government's anti-inflation push has undermined legislation known as EGALIM designed to safeguard farmgate prices.

Dairy producers are currently in dispute with Lactalis, the world's largest dairy group, over prices, and talks with an arbitrator are due on Thursday.

(Reporting by Gus Trompiz and Sybille de La Hamaide, Geert de Clercq in Paris, Kate Abnett, Johnny Cotton and Sudip Kar-Gupta in Brussels, Stephane Mahe in Plouisy, Nacho Doce in Castelnaudary; writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)