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French farmers up pressure on government as protests spread

By Clotaire Achi, Sudip Kar-Gupta and Tassilo Hummel

BEAUVAIS, France (Reuters) -Protesting farmers blocked roads across France on Tuesday and there was one fatal accident, as their unions urged the government to ease its drive for lower consumer prices and reduce environmental regulations.

The protests, heading into a second week after spilling over from neighbouring countries, come as campaigning for European Union elections gathers pace. The unrest is the first major challenge for new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal.

"They (the people) have completely forgotten that behind this job, there are women and men who need to make their living, to be proud again," said Luc Smessaert, who helped organise the blocking of the A16 motorway near Beauvais, north of Paris.

The government prides itself on its fight against inflation, pressuring the food sector to lower supermarket prices. But with agricultural protests spreading across Europe just as producers, suppliers and retailers conclude their annual price talks, many farmers say they are at the sharp end of this policy.

"We won't lift the roadblocks as long as the prime minister does not make very concrete announcements ... The time of talking is over, action is needed", said Arnaud Gaillot, head of the Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers) union.

Hours after union officials met Attal on Monday evening, new convoys of tractors set out in the night to block roads across the country, protesting against what farmers say are unfair prices and taxes, as well as excessive green regulation.

One farmer and her daughter were killed and another family member seriously injured when a car ran into a roadblock in the southwestern Ariege region, French media reported, citing the local prosecutor.

Commenting on the accident in the National Assembly, Attal said "all of rural France is in grief today", adding he would meet with all bodies representing farmers' interests on Tuesday and in the coming days.

Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau said the woman died "while defending her profession". He cancelled his trip to an EU meeting in Brussels to travel to the site.

"To our farmers: I asked the government to be fully mobilised to deliver concrete solutions to the difficulties you face," President Emmanuel Macron said on X.

PRICE WARS

Farming policy has always been a sensitive issue in France, the EU's biggest agricultural producer, where thousands of independent producers of meat, dairy, wine and other produce have a record of staging disruptive protests.

Macron is wary of farmers' growing support for the far right ahead of the European Parliament elections in June, with Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National party leading in the polls.

"We must not give in to demagogy and simple answers. Demagogy and simplicity are the worst things to do, especially when there is a crisis like this one," Fesneau told lawmakers.

The farming lobby says the outrage is mainly fuelled by the government's recent efforts - spearheaded by Finance and Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire - to fight inflation, urging retailers and food giants to cut prices.

"Prices are the number one priority", Patrick Benezit, the head of the FNB cattle farmer union, told a news conference, adding pressure on suppliers was being passed on to farmers, forcing some to sell below real costs, which would go against a law aimed at guaranteeing fair prices.

Benezit also slammed the "contradiction" of the EU's push for stricter environment regulation while also pursuing free trade deals like the MERCOSUR agreement with Latin America.

The European Commission published a report on Tuesday saying 63 measures worth 2.5 billion euros ($2.7 billion) had been taken between 2014 and 2023 to support EU farmers and producers.

($1 = 0.9203 euros)

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Tassilo Hummel, Jean-Stephane Brosse, Piotr Lipinski, Gus Trompiz and Zhifan Liu, additional reporting by Piotr Lipinski; Writing by Tassilo Hummel; Editing by Sharon Singleton, Mark Potter and Daniel Wallis)