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Emmanuel Macron stepped up his opposition to a trade deal between the European Union and the South American Mercosur bloc as he is faced at home with farmer protests sparked in part by foreign competition.
The French president contacted European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen last week with a plea to end the current round of negotiations, according to people familiar with the matter.
“France is opposing the current agreement being negotiated with Mercosur because it’s a deal that was struck a few years back and that doesn’t impose rules that are homogeneous with ours to Mercosur farmers and industrials,” Macron said on Tuesday during a news conference in Sweden.
Macron added that he would discuss the fate of Mercosur with von der Leyen on Thursday, on the sidelines of a EU summit. The French president said he would also seek to better “regulate” the imports of cheaper Ukrainian grain and chicken to Europe — another cause of concerns for French farmers. He cited a French ban on using antibiotics to make chickens grow faster, a practice that he said is common in South American countries.
A spokesperson for the commission said the Mercosur talks continue at a technical level and the EU’s focus remains on ensuring that the agreement delivers on the bloc’s sustainability goals while respecting its concerns in the agricultural sector. The person didn’t reply when asked when the next negotiation rounds would occur.
The EU and the Mercosur countries — Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay — have been in talks to clinch a trade accord for more than two decades. An agreement was announced in 2019 but never implemented amid new EU environmental demands.
Macron’s move is ultimately an effort to appease French farmers who have started blocking highways around Paris with their tractors. With two French farmers’ unions calling for a siege of Paris, they aim to pressure the government into further concessions to ease the burden of rising costs and red tape.
Many protesters are also pointing to what they describe as unfair competition from foreign countries, which they say is facilitated by free trade agreements such as Mercosur. They’ve also expressed worries that cheaper Ukraine imports will hurt their market share.
EU officials have been worried that protests by farmers, which also hit parts of Belgium this week, are likely to spread further.
Read more: French Farmers Block Highways Around Paris as Protests Sharpen
Farmers also attacked the recent free trade deal with New Zealand, which the French agriculture minister Marc Fesneau defended Monday as important. Macron praised the EU deal with Chile, saying both agreements included reciprocity requirements for farming production. Farmers were also a key opposition force against a free trade agreement with the US that was frozen under Donald Trump’s presidency.
Last week, some 100 lawmakers in Macron’s party sent a letter to von der Leyen to warn about the “dangers” of Mercosur for French farmers, calling it “anachronistic.”
Speaking from a UN conference about climate in Dubai in December, Macron had already said that environmental concessions obtained by the bloc weren’t sufficient, adding that products imported from Mercosur countries would have “a disgusting carbon footprint.” By contrast, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has publicly been calling for a swift conclusion of the talks.
Read more: EU Tries to Soothe Farmers’ Anger as Protests Keep Spreading
Macron is set to travel to Brazil in March. A person close to the president said he was confident his position on Mercosur wouldn’t affect the relationship with Brasilia.
The farmers’ protests, which started earlier this month, are putting Macron in a difficult position as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally seeks to capitalize on the movement. The French President just reshuffled his government and appointed a new Prime Minister, after passing a divisive immigration law with the support of the far-right in December, a move that upset the left-leaning members of his party.
(Updates with fresh Macron quotes in third and fourth paragraphs, European Commission comment in fifth paragraph, Macron comment in tenth paragraph.)
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