French Farmer Was Spark Behind Widespread Protests

Jérôme Bayle had spent seven nights on a major French highway, leading a group of aggrieved farmers in protest, when the prime minister arrived, dressed in his Parisian blue suit and tie, to thank them for “making France proud” and announced he would meet their demands.

Before camera flashes and outstretched microphones, Mr. Bayle told Prime Minister Gabriel Attal that he had seen the standoff as a match between two teams — the revolting farmers, led by Mr. Bayle, and the government, led by Mr. Attal.

“I don’t like losing,” said Mr. Bayle, dressed decidedly more casually, with a baseball hat on his head, turned backward. The thick crowd around him chuckled. It was clear his team had won.

Mr. Bayle, 42, a former professional rugby player, is widely credited with sparking a national protest movement of farmers that this week brought their grievances to the capital, blocking highways into Paris, despite fresh pledges on Tuesday from Mr. Attal to shield them from “unfair competition.”

Unsatisfied, the farmers say they will continue the disruptions to call attention to what they call the insufferable hardships of growing food to feed the French nation.

Mr. Bayle knows those sufferings intimately. He took over his family’s cereal and cattle farm in 2015, after finding the lifeless body of his father, Alain. His father had been depressed because he was facing a retirement with no savings, Mr. Bayle said, and had shot himself in the head. The suicide became an ominous touchstone for Mr. Bayle.

“I didn’t want to see my friends do the same thing,” he said in an interview from his farm, some 35 miles from Toulouse.

It has been a terrible few years for local farmers. First they were hit by repeated droughts, and the collapse of consumer demand for organic food after many farmers had made the difficult switch. Then, a midge-carrying disease crossed over the nearby snowcapped Pyrenees from Spain and infected many of their cattle, causing death and miscarriages. And that is just in Mr. Bayle’s southwest corner of the country.

More broadly, not just in France but all around Europe, farmers are complaining about rising costs from inflation and the war in Ukraine. Those burdens have been exacerbated as the governments look to save money by shaving farm subsidies, even as the European Union heaps more regulations on farmers to meet climate and other environmental goals.

It has become too much, farmers say.

Mr. Bayle was among the hundreds of farmers who rolled through the streets of Toulouse earlier this month in their tractors, joining a union-organized protest with a grab bag of demands for the government.

The farmers were in the city’s beautiful pink main square, lined with cafes, when they learned the meeting between their union leaders and the local prefect — the top government official in the French system — had yielded no concrete relief. Friends pushed a microphone into Mr. Bayle’s hands, knowing he could rally the crowd.

“I’m not waiting any longer,” Mr. Bayle roared, his words coated in the melodious southwest accent. He called for those who “have pride in this job” to block the highway.

Two days later, an army of tractors pulled onto the highway that connects Toulouse to the Spanish border, near the town of Carbonne, with bales of hay to set into place. When the gendarmes appeared, Mr. Bayle declared he wouldn’t leave until the farmers received concrete solutions to three pressing problems, or the officers shot him in the head.

“He is the only one who could do it. He has the charisma,” said Joël Tournier, 43, a fellow farmer who would later take over logistics for the blockade.

Over days, their ranks grew, as did the donations, until their blockade under a highway overpass was transformed into the hippest hangout in town, with a wild boar turning over a spit and a D.J. spilling out tunes over a loudspeaker. They had a portable toilet installed, and a storage container filled with hay served as a giant collective bed.

Twice a day, they hung a mannequin dressed in coveralls from the overpass above — to loosely represent the suicide rate among French farmers, which continues to be high, despite government programs to address it.

“We did it all without the unions,” said Bertrand Loup, 46, a grain and beef farmer who helped manage the blockade. “That’s why people supported us. They felt we were talking from our hearts.”

National polls revealed enormous support for the movement they had started, and other actions began around the country. Most locals agreed and tolerated the truck traffic rerouting through Carbonne to circumnavigate the roadblock, according to the mayor, Denis Turrel.

“It made perfect sense what they did,” said Frank Bardon, 66, a retired physiotherapist and osteopath, who was walking his dog through the town’s main street with his family on Sunday. “Their living conditions are difficult.”

The farmers were following a deep-seated revolutionary tradition in France. Back in 1953, winemakers, seeing their profits collapse, set their wooden carts across a national highway at the start of the summer holiday to demand government aid and offer tastings to waylaid drivers. It worked so well that a model was set, with farmers in the southwest following suit a couple months later, said Édouard Lynch, a professor of contemporary French history at Lyon 2 University.

“They always win a little bit,” said Mr. Lynch, the author of the book “Peasant Insurrection.” “It’s effective.”

Farmers make up less than 2 percent of the country’s population, but they occupy a towering space in the national psyche — in part because France industrialized relatively late, Mr. Lynch said.

“The French have a real sympathy for farmers. Everyone says, ‘My father or grandfather was a peasant,’” he said.

So perhaps it was not surprising that the prime minister, trailed by two ministers and a prefect, came to the blockade for a tour and a glass of red wine. While his friends were shocked, Mr. Bayle was not.

“He didn’t have a choice,” he said, sitting on a giant tractor tire outside his cattle barn, taking a moment of respite to bask in the sun and the movement’s success. He was exhausted — he had slept only three hours a night while running the blockade. And his phone continued to beep and ring with demands from journalists.

“It was like he was a rock star,” said Mr. Turrel, the mayor, describing the crowd’s reaction to Mr. Bayle. “He spoke with his heart and with words of suffering that cast a phenomenal power.”

From the beginning, Mr. Bayle had demanded concrete solutions to three concrete problems — easing the process of building water reservoirs, delivering financial support to farms infected with the epizootic hemorrhagic disease and scrapping the pending cost increase on tractor fuel.

Mr. Attal delivered all three last Friday, so Mr. Bayle announced the end of his blockade — and his protest.

While the heads of two powerful farm unions declared a siege of Paris, bearing a long list of their own grievances, Mr. Bayle and his crew went back to their barns to catch up on all the work they’d been neglecting.

Some have criticized Mr. Bayle’s group as selfish; others as sellouts.

“They should do as well as we have,” Mr. Tournier said of the critics as he sat in his kitchen, a bag of his clothing from the blockade slumped nearby, still unpacked. “A little group of friends, in one week, moved the prime minister and two ministers. We federated the country. We showed that you can do big things with people who are faithful and friends. You can do beautiful things.”

From his spot in the sun, Mr. Bayle said he never expected to change France’s agricultural model in a week, nor has he any interest in getting into politics despite his clear flair for speaking.

“My life is here on the farm,” he said. “We got the ball rolling from here. Now, others are taking over and the goal is for more and more measures to be won.”

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