France steps up security as Paris farmers' protest looms

By Benjamin Mallet and Sudip Kar-Gupta

PARIS (Reuters) -France stepped up security measures on Sunday as farmers prepared to converge on Paris as part of nationwide protests from agricultural workers demanding better pay and living conditions.

Farmers in France, the European Union's biggest agricultural producer, have complained of unfair competition from rivals in more lightly regulated countries. Over the last week, they have set up roadblocks on motorways to highlight their cause. They have also damaged property, including local government offices.

Some farmers' unions called for protesters to set up transport roadblocks around the capital on Monday, and to target the Rungis food market near Paris.

"Our aim is to encircle Paris," farmer Daniel Faucheux told BFM TV, as he prepared to travel to the capital in a convoy of farmers' vehicles and tractors.

The Paris police body said that, in response to this, it was increasing security around Rungis and the Paris Roissy airport. It also published videos on its social media account of armoured police vehicles taking up position by Rungis.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said those measures were to ensure no tractor could get into Paris, but he nevertheless warned of disruption on Monday in the Ile-de-France region, which covers Paris and the nearby suburbs. He added that around 15,000 police would be used as part of the security operation.

"Transport will be very difficult tomorrow in Ile-de-France," said Darmanin.

"We are losing a bit of our economic growth as a result of these roadblocks," he added.

The French protests follow similar action in other European countries, including Germany and Poland, ahead of European elections in June in which the far right - for whom farmers represent a growing constituency - are predicted to make gains.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen - President Emmanuel Macron's closest opponent in the 2017 and 2022 elections - visited some of those demonstrating in northern France.

"We have got to get our farming out of these free trade agreements," she said.

On Friday, the government dropped plans to gradually reduce state subsidies on agricultural diesel, and announced other steps to reduce the financial and administrative pressures farmers face. Nevertheless, many farmers want more.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Benjamin Mallet, Bertrand Boucey, Yves Herman, Manuel Ausloos; editing by Barbara Lewis)