(AP) PARIS (AP) - French farmers struggling with slumping grain prices blanketed the Champs-Elysees with bales of hay and set them ablaze Friday and blocked highways around the country as they demanded government help.
About 150 farmers blocked traffic and unloaded hay and tires onto the most famous shopping street in Paris. The protesters set the hay on fire but firefighters quickly extinguished the flames.
Grain farmers were staging nationwide protests to call attention to their debts and other difficulties that have mounted as food prices have fallen from record highs in 2007.
More than 50,000 farmers, with 7,000 tractors and 1,000 animals, disrupted traffic throughout the country, from Toulouse in southern France to Calais on the English Channel and Moselle in the northeast.
In Rouen, in Normandy, farmers tried to attract attention to their cause by offering their products for free in front of the city's famous cathedral.
"Mr. Sarkozy, agriculture merits as much as the banking or automobile sectors," the FNSEA union said on its Web site, referring to emergency aid the French government offered banks and carmakers to help them weather the global economic crisis.
Agriculture is still one of the most shielded economic sectors in the 27-nation European Union, but it has not been able to protect farmers from the global financial crisis, which caused demand to plummet. EU officials insist they still intend to gradually create freer markets for European farm products.
French farmers receive subsidies under the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy, which in 2008 disbursed euro50 billion, or $71 billion, mostly to large companies.
FNSEA chief Jean-Michel Lemetayer appealed to the government for a "major emergency plan" including tax cuts to help French farmers compete with European rivals. Lemetayer also wants euro1 billion ($1.5 billion) in loans for farmers, with the interest and fees paid by the government.
Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire appeared ready to meet some of the demands, saying he would urge President Nicolas Sarkozy to reduce the tax burden on farmers this year.
Le Maire predicted overall agricultural revenue would drop by up to 20 percent in 2009 after a 20 percent drop in 2008, though farmers say the decline this year is the worst in decades.
After the Champs-Elysees action, farmers gathered in front of the gold-domed Invalides, home to Napoleon's tomb. Some wore signs with a picture of a drowning person, with the caption: "Sarkozy: Agriculture, should it pay such a price?"
Fabien Pigeon, a wheat farmer from the Paris region, said he is euro230,000 ($341,872) in debt.
"We sell at less than 30 percent the cost of production. The cost to produce a ton of wheat is euro134, but the price of a ton is less than euro100. Two years ago, the production cost was euro110 and the price was euro200," he said.
Gerone Porthault, a 27-year-old who works with his father and brother on their wheat farm near Rambouillet, southwest of Paris, said he was not asking for more subsidies but for globally regulated prices.
The grain farmers' fiery protest comes after dairy farmers dumped rivers of milk across fields in France, Belgium and other countries to protest collapsing milk prices. Dairy farmers had urged the EU to limit production through quotas to drive up prices and shield them from market fluctuations.
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