French President Nicolas Sarkozy took another swipe at speculation in food commodities on Feb. 19 as he pushed his G20 agenda and sought to court the farming world a year ahead of France’s next presidential vote.
Opening the Paris farm show, one of the biggest events in France’s political calendar, Sarkozy focused on reassuring disgruntled livestock farmers who have been hurt by a hike in feed costs caused by soaring grain prices.
The president told farmers he would defend them against market volatility and environmental critics, but also urged them to modernise in order to compete in food markets.
“The only way forward for agriculture is two words: competitiveness and regulation,” Sarkozy told a panel of farmers at a round table after a two-hour long visit in the alleys of the fair.
Sarkozy spent most of his visit talking to livestock farmers, including a group of breeders wearing T-shirts saying “meat producers are angry,” and stressed France’s efforts to curb speculation and safeguard European Union farm spending.
“Which is the only country in the whole world that condemns speculation? What government defends its farmers as much (as we do)?,” Sarkozy told a meat farmer who pleaded for help for a sector he said was “in danger of extinction.”
Sarkozy, who is expected to seek re-election in 2012 despite struggling against chronically low approval ratings, was on a visible charm offensive at the show, patting children’s heads, signing autographs and joking with some members of the public.
Some breeders were sceptical about the president’s message, but others welcomed Sarkozy’s closer interest in farming issues.
“One should not think about farmers only a year before the election. He should have been thinking about us for the past four years. To this day, he has still not listened to us,” said Alain Lescure, a farmer in the Cantal cheese-producing region.
But the head of France’s main farm union praised the tone and the content of Sarkozy’s visit.
“He took his time, which is a good thing. He took the time to hear what farmers had to tell him,” FNSEA President Xavier Beulin told Reuters after Sarkozy’s visit.
His first trip to the Paris show as president had been marred by a spat with a member of the public, but he has since made efforts to woo farmers, an important electoral base in Europe’s biggest farm producer, with a string of speeches.
Sarkozy used a debate with farmers to condemn once more the role of speculation in price volatility, which he said went beyond market fundamentals.
“France does not reject the market, on the contrary we support it. The problem is when limited supply is coupled with outrageous speculative effects that lead to artificial shortages, panic and a surge in prices.”
Sarkozy has made agriculture a central part of his call for greater regulation of commodity markets as he presides over the G20 group of major economies in 2011, but political observers doubt France will obtain tough curbs on commodity speculation.
G20 finance ministers gathered in Paris Feb. 19 were due to discuss commodity regulation, although talks were mainly focused on indicators to measure global economic imbalances.
Soaring grain prices, linked to adverse weather in major producing countries, have brought higher food costs and fanned social unrest in some countries, putting agriculture back on the agenda of world leaders three years after a similar food debate.
Like elsewhere in Europe, livestock breeders in France have been hard hit by climbing grain prices that account for a chunk of their production costs and which have not been offset by higher sale prices.
Sarkozy called on breeders to adapt to market conditions, saying they should use risk management tools like grain farmers and develop production of gas using farm biomass.
To boost on-farm biogas output, which is little developed in France compared to Germany, he said the government would raise by the end of April the tariff paid for electricity generated from biogas and also offer aid to inject it into the gas grid.
The French president, who was accompanied by Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire, also used the occasion to condemn an advertising campaign in Paris metro stations that attacked environmental damage caused by farming.
“I want to tell those who defend the environment that the day when we no longer have any farmers, who will ensure the survival of our countryside?”
“Iwanttotellthosewhodefendtheenvironmentthatthe daywhenwenolongerhaveanyfarmers,whowillensure thesurvivalofourcountryside?”