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French grain farmers take to the streets of Paris

PARIS (Reuters) - More than 10,000 French farmers marched and drove tractors through Paris on Tuesday demanding urgent government action to boost cereal prices and stem a fall in income they say could put many out of business.

Grain growers are the latest French farm sector to voice anger over declining prices, and their protest comes as President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose approval ratings are hovering around all-time lows, tries to win back support from conservative constituencies like farming.

About 11,000 grain farmers, backed up by 1,500 tractors -- according to figures provided by leading farm union FNSEA -- gathered for a demonstration that saw curious passers-by taking photos of a rare spectacle in the heart of the French capital.

The organisers will be hoping that this eye-catching parade, which saw a giant line of tractors escorted by police along motorways and into the city, will put pressure on both the French government and the European Union, whose top farm official visits Paris on Wednesday.

“Demonstrators came to express, on the eve of the EU farm commissioner’s visit, the distress of a sector and the crisis that agriculture is facing,” FNSEA Secretary General Dominique Barrau told Reuters as tractors gathered around Nation square.

France’s cereal growers, among the most productive in the world, say a cut in subsidies this year and the prospect of another big harvest will exacerbate low prices and farm losses.

Average wheat prices fell 25 percent in France last year, and income for grain, oilseed and protein crop farmers slumped 51 percent, according to estimates by the French farm ministry.

French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire addressed one of grain farmers’ demand by calling on the European Commission to step up buying of surplus stocks, saying intervention in the dairy sector last year eased a crisis there.

“I ask the European Commission to make available more financial means to allow this intervention on the market because it is the most effective solution for getting prices to rise again,” Le Maire told France Inter radio earlier on Tuesday.

WEALTHY IMAGE

But farmers remain unconvinced by a package of low-interest loans and tax relief offered by the government in recent months, and grain growers now want measures like interest-free export credits and export subsidies to clear stocks.

“If the markets do not recover, Bruno Le Maire, (Prime Minister) Francois Fillon and the President need to know that we won’t have the means to repay these loans in 2011,” Jean-Michel Lemetayer, president of the FNSEA, told a meeting on Nation square at the end of Tuesday’s demonstration.

He called on Sarkozy to lead the cause of regulation as EU countries discuss renewing the bloc’s sprawling Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for the period after 2013.

France has called on other EU members to maintain a strong CAP but faces firm opposition from other EU members like Britain in favour of a streamlined policy.

France is the largest beneficiary under the CAP, receiving last year about 20 percent of EU subsidies of 40 billion euros.

The subsidies, together with typically higher incomes compared to livestock farmers, have contributed to an image of grain growers as wealthy farming elite.

“The grain growers are the most well-off,” said Robert Bouy, 57, one of the Parisian onlookers at Tuesday’s demonstration. “There are some very wealthy farmers.”

But the cereal farmers say they need adequate prices, rather than subsidies, to cover costs that have been increased by tough French health and environmental regulations.

“We are not here to beg for more money. We want a fair price for the quality of our products and in order to preserve our competitiveness,” said Fred, a 42-year old farmer from the north of Paris, who did not want to give his full name.

Additional reporting by Valerie Parent; writing by Marie Maitre; editing by James Jukwey

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