French wine makers riot over industry problems

Related tags Wine France

Angry French wine makers clashed with riot police in Narbonne
yesterday, turning the city centre into a smoking battle zone in
protest at a lack of government support for their ailing industry,
reports Chris Mercer from Narbonne.

Young vintners and unidentified activists wearing gas masks set fire to bins and boxes and threw lumps of concrete at riot squads who hit back, bombarding crowds of protestors with tear gas cans.

Some police were almost set alight as a few protestors managed to ignite a row of boxes only a little way in front of the squadron, blocking their path.

The exchange lasted for about an hour as police called in truckloads of reinforcements to disperse the crowds, and then began surrounding the remaining 100-or-so young protestors.

More activists attacked railway lines, setting fire to signals and succeeding in cancelling most trains in the south of France's Languedoc-Roussillon region for more than two hours.

The trouble at Narbonne follows several violent acts by vintners in recent weeks, including the hijacking and destruction of four lorries carrying Spanish wine just outside Montpellier on Monday night.

The main rally in Narbonne, attended by around 7,000 local wine makers, lasted more than two hours, though was relatively peaceful and orderly.

Yet this and other recent events have revealed the many tensions lying beneath the surface of France's wine sector, faced with falling domestic consumption, rising foreign competition at home and abroad and overproduction.

By the time Philippe Vergnes, president of the region's wine makers' union, began his speech to the crowds in Narbonne, what began weeks ago as anger at the scant government support for this year's production surplus had transformed into wide scale unrest about the whole industry.

"The government has promised more money, but this will not solve the problems in the long-term. There must be more protection for French wine producers on the domestic market,"​ said Benoit Lignières, who runs a private wine business that has been in his family since the time of the French Revolution.

There was a general consensus among protestors that French wine did not receive enough protection on the home market, with many angry at rising imports from Spain and Italy.

Indeed there was also broad consensus that the EU should move quickly to create a level playing field between producer countries by harmonising excise duties.

Only France has an excise duty on its wine, albeit €0.02 per 70cl, out of the main wine-producing nations in western Europe.

On Monday, the French government said it would almost double a €70 million aid package promised to vintners in January after a 23 per cent production increase threatened to flood the market. French wine prices have since dropped more than 30 per cent.

The government also said it had assurances from Brussels that it would give emergency distillation funding to help relieve the surplus.

Union president Vergnes welcomed the announcement but reminded 'Paris' it had yet to deliver, partly echoing some more sceptical vintners in the crowd who suggested the aid would be less after France's all-important referendum of the EU Constitution to be held on 29 May.

Others called government help completely insufficient and warned that many businesses would close unless more was done to re-organise the industry itself.

"Many are struggling to survive now and a lot will have to close in the future, particularly smaller businesses but also the co-operatives,"​ said Michel Bataille, a senior member of a co-operative business near Béziers.

"There are two main problems: foreign competition and falling consumption. This emergency aid from the government will not help with these long-term problems. We need to make our industry more competitive,"​ said Bataille.

"Our big regions like Bourgogne, Bordeaux and the Languedoc have found it difficult to market big brands and this has been difficult against the branded competition from the New World,"​ he added.

Bataille and many others were dismayed that the French government has only set aside an extra €7 million to help market French wine abroad. California's Gallo plans to invest €3.8m in promoting just one brand - ironically, a red wine called Pont d'Avignon.

As yet there is little sign of further government help, yet Bataille and others said they would continue to campaign. "If we don't protest, what else can we do,"​ he said.

Attitudes were, however, split on the merits of some vintners' violent actions. Bataille was concerned it may be counter-productive, yet family wine-maker Benoit Lignières and his friend Michel Tailhades were more philosophical.

"Obviously violence is not the best way, but unfortunately it seems it has been the only thing that has made the government sit up and listen to us."

Lignières added that it was hard to describe just how important wine is to France and its people: "Wine is part of the peoples' character down here, it is in their mindset.

"Wine is not the same as other commercial products like milk for example, wine changes from vineyard to vineyard, it reflects the field and the vine and the individual producer. It is not like that for some of these Australian firms,"​ he said.

Even so, France is losing serious ground on international markets and Australia, which only produces 13 million hectolitres annually compared to France's 59 million (in 2004), recently replaced its Old World rival as the UK's number one wine supplier.

At the Narbonne rally yesterday there was a sense that most vintners believe their industry is entering a painful period of readjustment and re-organisation, even if they don't want to discuss it.

But, whilst all the protestors had similar complaints, the leaders' challenge will be to transform this into a clear, concrete set of aims and positions, without which it may be hard to bend the government's ear.

The movement must also be careful not to collect too many hangers-on. Some anti-EU Constitution signs were visible at yesterday's rally, something that may dilute the wine makers' cause.

The next protest is planned for late May, just before France's EU Constitution vote.

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