Macron visits French farm fair amid rural anger, decline

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the opening of the International Agriculture Fair in Paris, France, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019. Macron is visiting France's biggest premier agricultural fair amid nationwide anger at government policies seen as favoring urban elites and neglecting the heartland. (Charles Platiau/Pool Photo via AP)

President Emmanuel Macron pledged to protect European farming standards and culinary traditions

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron pledged Saturday to protect European farming standards and culinary traditions threatened by aggressive foreign trade practices that see food as a "product like any other."

Macron's speech at his country's premier agriculture fair was aimed at assuaging French farmers' anger at government policies seen as favoring urban elites and neglecting the heartland cherished for producing famed cheeses and wines.

Europe's "civilization of eating well, of gastronomy, of the art of living" is now threatened by world powers that pursue aggressive trade policies and "consider food a product like any other," without taking into account environmental, health or culinary concerns, Macron said.

Macron proposed using blockchain technology to trace the source of food and putting Europe in the "avant-garde of agricultural technology."

He spoke amid European Union talks on its next agricultural aid plan, a major source of funding for French farmers. He appealed for unity at those talks and argued against calls to re-nationalize French farming policy.

"In agriculture just like in many other areas, we must invent a new global deal. Yes, we must be on the offensive, carrying out a deep reform of trade policies," said Macron, who didn't shy from engaging in technical conversations with farmers as he walked past their stands. Around midday, Macron was offered a mini hamburger made of Cantal cheese and Salers beef, a famous breed native of central France.

He appealed to French farmers to view their livelihoods in a global context, but many are struggling under day-to-day debt and uncertainty about the future. Macron is seen by many in rural France as epitomizing out-of-touch city elites, and many French farmers want more government help to face growing foreign competition.

Macron is trying to tackle the concerns head-on by spending all day Saturday at the Salon d'Agriculture in Paris, where farmers showcase their livestock, food and wines. He's meeting with dairy farmers, pork producers, vintners and others.

The yearly Salon has long been a key event of the French political calendar, with French presidents often using the event to test their popularity. Jacques Chirac used to spend whole days at the fair drinking and speaking with farmers while patting their cows. Back in 2008, Nicolas Sarkozy was involved in a spat with man who refused to shake his hand and the former president hit back with an insult.

Security was tight for Macron's visit Saturday, which came as yellow vest protesters held anti-government protests around Paris and other cities for a 15th straight weekend. Macron, whose approval ratings have bounced back in recent weeks, was booed at last year's farm fair over plans to ban a popular pesticide and trade deals.

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