PARIS Cash-strapped French farmers evoked the spirit of the country's 18th century revolution on Friday, decrying as insensitive the choice of a grand chateau in the Loire valley for a meeting of EU agriculture ministers.
The meeting at the Chateau de Chambord, built some 250 years before the nation's high-living aristocracy were ousted by workers and peasants in the 1789 revolution, was called to discuss the future of European agriculture.
"Ministers at the chateau, peasants on the street," was the title of a statement from the main farmers union objecting to the choice.
"You can't enjoy castle luxury when peasants are dying of hunger!," said Bernard Lannes, chairman of the lobby group Coordination Rurale.
Twenty ministers joined the meeting while unions held protests outside the castle grounds and in the nearby city of Blois.
French Agriculture Stephane Le Foll defended the choice, saying the castle was under his ministry's supervision and thus free of charge.
"When France wants to have influence it must be proud of its history, of its heritage," Le Foll told Reuters, adding that his counterparts were "dazzled" by the site.
France has faced months of sometimes violent protests over falling milk and meat prices in France.
Grain growers, who had been spared in previous years as they enjoyed high world prices or good harvests, were also hit this year after heavy rain in the spring severely damaged their crops at a time of low prices.
France has the biggest agricultural sector of all EU countries.
Overall French farmers will lose between 4 and 5 billion euros in revenue this year, Xavier Beulin, the head of France's largest farm union FNSEA said.
Le Foll invited his European counterparts to Chambord to discuss the challenges facing the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), which has the biggest share of the EU budget, after Britain's decision to leave the bloc.
Le Foll said ministers had agreed at the meeting on the importance of the CAP and the need to simplify it for farmers, had tackled the challenges they have to face and stressed the need to find new tools to avoid new crises.
The EU farm ministers will meet again in Bratislava on Sept 12 and 13 under Slovakia's turn as EU president.
(Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide, additional reporting by Simon Carraud; Editing by Andrew Callus, Greg Mahlich)