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French farmers protest EU farm talks at Loire chateau

CHAMBORD (AFP) – Hundreds of struggling French farmers protested Friday outside a meeting of EU agriculture ministers at the giant Loire Valley chateau of Chambord.

“Holding a crisis meeting in the sumptuous Chambord chateau is a provocation, or at the very least tactless,” Bernard Lannes, head of the farmers union Coordination Rurale, told AFP.

“Our agriculture is on its knees,” Lannes said as some 350 farmers joined the demonstration and shared “a large people s meal under the windows of the European lords” — in the words of the Coordination Rurale s call for the demonstration.

They brought along a fibreglass sculpture of a cow painted in the French national colours and bearing the slogan “Le Lait Equitable” (equitable milk).

The union is demanding a one-off payment of 500 euros ($560) per hectare (about 2.5 acres) for farmers who have endured what it says is “the worst year since World War II” because of adverse weather and tumbling prices for their production.

The milk sector has been especially hard hit, with French and other European producers saying current retail prices scarcely cover production costs, never mind allowing for distribution costs and profit.

The abolition of European Union milk quotas in April 2015 helped trigger the collapse in prices that have not recovered despite an initial aid package agreed in September 2015.

Currently, “it s the farmers who are sacrificing while the others are profiting,” Lannes said, pointing to banks, insurance companies, cooperatives, agribusiness, and large retailers. “It can t go on like this.”

The EU ministers, meeting to discuss the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the wake of Britain s vote to exit the bloc, “are living the life of the chateau while farmers are dying,” Lannes said.

Another farmers union, the Confederation Paysanne, demonstrated in the nearby city of Blois, where around 120 protesters pressed their demand for “real European regulation for farmers in distress”.

Several hundred police provided security for the ministerial meeting at Chambord, keeping protesters out of sight.

Built as a hunting lodge for King Francis I, the massive 16th-century Renaissance chateau and its grounds are ringed by a 32-kilometre (20-mile) wall.

The ministers agreed Friday to maintain the CAP despite the Brexit vote.

“There will not be a CAP-exit,” French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said, flanked by 19 counterparts who attended the Chambord meeting.

The 1962 accord, which covers farm aid and accounts for about a third of EU spending “is an integral part of the European project,” Le Foll said.