Farmers’ revolt: A fertile pasture for the far right

By Searchlight Team
By Huw Davies

European Parliament, Brussels (Feb 2024) Photo: Matthias Berg/EPP Group

In the past few years, European far-right parties have climbed the polls, shaped the policies of mainstream right-wing parties, and even occupied ministerial roles in coalition governments.

The reasons for the rise of far-right and populist politics vary from country to country. In some cases, it is strongly linked to immigration, which has become a significant concern for some voters. In others, it is a response to economic challenges, and a sense of dissatisfaction with mainstream parties’ ability to address these issues.

This is being exploited by right-wing populists who promise simple solutions to complex problems and a strong stand on protecting national identity, sovereignty and traditional values. Given the particular grievances far-right groups seek to exploit, it is no surprise that they have been drawn to the farmers’ protests that have ripped across Europe since spring 2023.

Farmers’ groups have voiced objections to, for example, excessive regulation, cheap foreign imports (including low-priced agricultural products from Ukraine) and European Union (EU) environmental policies.

Spotting an opportunity, far-right groups have been positioning themselves as the farmers’ champion, exploiting their frustrations to further their own political agendas, posing challenges to mainstream political parties and potentially shaping the political landscape in upcoming elections.

The effect may last for many years to come. As the June EU parliamentary elections approach, new political alignments may be formed and potentially normalise far-right politics.


Some of the most dramatic protests by farmers in Europe have taken place in France, and with the explicit and vocal backing of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right political party, Rassemblement National (National Rally, previously the National Front).

Le Pen has consistently expressed support for the plight of the farmers, criticising government agricultural policies and EU regulations. In January, she joined a tractor rally that blocked eight routes into Paris and rode on a tractor for the benefit of the media.

The wave of protests began in mid-January when farmers blocked the centre of Toulouse in Southwest France and truckloads of manure were dumped on the streets outside government buildings. The A64 motorway between Toulouse and Tarbes was blocked by farmers and events quickly escalated into violence as a radical group of winemakers, the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole, bombed an administrative building in Carcassonne on the night of 18 January. Protests then spread with tractors blocking roads into Paris and other major routes nationwide.

Many of the blockades were lifted in early February after Prime Minister Gabriel Attal promised concessions, including financial assistance, and the easing of regulations and unfair competition. However, tractors made their way back into Paris on 23 February, with further protests held across the country to pressure the government to implement its promises. On 24 February a group of farmers stormed the Paris Agricultural Show ahead of a visit by President Emmanuel Macron.

At the heart of the farmers’ complaints is dwindling income, which has tragically led to a surge in suicides. Second, farmers are angry at environmental policies, EU regulations and what they perceive as unfair competition.

The significance of Le Pen’s involvement cannot be understated. It is part of a wider strategy to build her political base among rural voters. She has positioned herself as a defender of French agriculture, attacking Macron and, more broadly, the EU’s agricultural, environmental and immigration policies.

Although Le Pen’s racist and xenophobic party had been gaining popularity over the past decade, it has claimed a noticeable increase in followers since the January protests. The party’s position on immigration, economic patriotism and opposition to EU policies has resonated with many farmers who feel unrepresented by mainstream politicians.


There is a well-established link between right-wing groups and farmers’ protests in the Netherlands. Last year, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB)) had a significant win in provincial elections, and the party that previously had no representatives in the Senate is now the largest group in the Upper House of Parliament.

BBB is a right-wing, populist party that was formed in 2019 following large-scale farmers’ protests against government environmental policies. Notably, the party counts Donald Trump and Le Pen among its supporters.

In October 2019, thousands of farmers, organised by the Farmers Defence Force (described by observers as a far-right group), drove their tractors to The Hague, causing over a thousand kilometres of traffic jams.

The protests were used by the far right as a springboard to build support. The Party for Freedom, founded by Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders, won a shocking victory in the November general election last year to emerge as the largest single party, although as yet it has been unable to find partners to form a government. Wilders stood on an anti-migrant, Eurosceptic platform and is known for his anti-Islam hate speech – he has called for the Quran to be banned and is virulently opposed to multiculturalism.

Protesters in the Netherlands, however, have largely been concerned with the government’s environmental policies which, they argue, would negatively impact the agricultural sector. They single out policies to cut nitrogen emissions by reducing livestock populations. Last June, in The Hague, the Farmers Defence Force protested against the breakdown in negotiations between farmers and government ministers on the future of agriculture in the country.

The ongoing farmers’ protests in Germany began in December last year in response to the abolition of tax breaks and other subsidies for farmers. Since then, protests have grown and the reasons behind them have broadened to include many of the concerns expressed by farmers across Europe, such as complicated or excessive regulations and competition from foreign imports.


Farmers blockade Berlin Photo: Matthias Berg/EPP Group

Arguably, Germany has seen the most worrying involvement from far-right and extremist groups in farmers’ protests. In January, the Free Saxons, an extremist, far-right, monarchist group which seeks to restore an independent Kingdom of Saxony, joined and spoke at a farmers’ protest in Dresden. At the same time, neo-nazi groups Dritte Weg (Third Way) and Die Heimat (The Homeland) infiltrated and participated in protests in Berlin alongside members of Alternative for Germany (AfD). Regional members of AfD were also reportedly in attendance at a demonstration in Stuttgart.

Unsurprisingly, many of the organisers of the farmers’ protests have tried to distance themselves from these groups, but it demonstrates how the far right view such protests – as hunting grounds for supporters, and useful platforms to reach larger audiences.


Protestors blockade Brussels and set fires (Feb 2024) Photo: Matthias Berg/EPP Group

The EU has been the target of much of the farmers’ anger, which has focused on EU environmental policies, trade policies, the phasing out of tax breaks for the agricultural sectors, unequal distribution of subsidies and the complex regulatory system. So it is not surprising that Brussels has seen intense clashes between police and protesting farmers.

In February last year, farmers from Italy, Portugal and Spain joined their Belgian counterparts to demand action on cheap foreign imports into Europe, rising costs, falling prices and EU environmental rules. The protesters blocked Brussels with more than 900 tractors and clashed with police, spraying liquid manure and setting fires. Similar actions were held in January with the blockade of Zeebrugge Port and a week long demonstration near Antwerp.

The protests in Belgium have also found themselves to be popular with far-right and populist parties, and radical conspiracy theorists.

A protest on 1 February involving a blockade of Brussels by thousands of tractors saw the involvement of the Belgian far-right Vlaams Belang party. Protesters were pictured carrying flags with symbols of Flemish nationalist movements and banners with slogans of the most extremist Flemish militias.

Vlaams Belang, also known as Flemish Interest, is a far-right, populist party that focuses on Flemish nationalism and anti-immigration policies. Its predecessor, the Vlaams Blok, was banned in 2004 for violating anti-racism laws.

In March, Dries Van Langenhove, former Vlaams Belang politician and leader of the far-right, extremist youth group, Schild & Vrienden (Shield and Friends), was sentenced to over one year in prison on charges including racism, Holocaust denial and breaching a local gun law. He has used social media to voice support for protesting farmers and linked the protests to the debunked “Great Reset” conspiracy – that a global elite is using the pandemic to dismantle capitalism and enforce social change.


Similar patterns of protesting farmers and opportunistic far-right groups can be seen throughout Europe.

Portugal’s populist Chega party has been supportive of the protests, gaining followers from the agricultural sector who are dissatisfied with mainstream politicians. In the general election in March the party increased its parliamentary seats fourfold to 48, its vote share climbing from 7.2% to 18.1%.

In Spain, the grievances of farmers have become a fertile environment for the growth of Vox, the far-right party established in 2013, which entered the national parliament with 24 out of 350 seats in April 2019.

Poland’s right-wing, populist party, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice), has held large-scale protests in Warsaw in support of farmers. In February, around 100 farmers and 50 cars blocked the Medyka border crossing between Poland and Ukraine in protest at what they see as unfair competition from cheap agricultural imports from Ukraine.

An estimated 30,000 farmers and agricultural workers protested outside the parliament building in Warsaw in March. After the official event, the gathering turned violent as protestors clashed with police. Paving stones were thrown and fireworks set off, injuring several officers.

One of the main protest organisers, particularly of the Poland-Ukraine border blockades is Rafal Mekler, the pro-Russian leader of the regional branch of the far-right party, Confederation, Liberty and Independence (Confederation). He is also an activist for another far-right group, the National Movement. Confederation gained seats in the Polish parliament last October, with a 10% share of the vote.

Similar blockades took place at the Zahony crossing between Hungary and Ukraine. Protesting farmers in Hungary have received strong vocal support from its authoritarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and his far-right Fidesz party.

In February, around 100 members of the Irish far right infiltrated a tractor protest in Athlone. However, the Irish Farmers’ Association has distanced itself from such groups. Support for far-right politics is growing in Ireland, with groups, such as the Irish Freedom Party and House the Irish First, claiming to have trebled their membership in recent months. Both groups are Irish nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-EU.

Closer to home, farmers’ protests in Wales are connected with a campaign called “No Farmers No Food”. It is run by right-wing pundit and conspiracy theorist James Melville, a climate-change sceptic who has circulated baseless narratives concerning the net-zero agenda. The presence of climate-denying extremists at these protests seemed acceptable enough for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to happily pose for pictures.

Crucial battleground

Agriculture is emerging as a crucial battleground in European politics. Governments are attempting to pacify farmers, while far-right groups work to capitalise on their discontent.

There is a perception that “the left” is, broadly, pro-EU and more concerned about the environment and environmental policies, while “the right” has positioned itself on the side of farmers and, on the whole, is anti-EU and against environmental regulation, which some farmers see as an existential threat.

EU leaders are worried that far-right support and Euroscepticism sentiment are growing in the agricultural sector. They are particularly concerned about the implications for the European Parliament elections in June. A European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank report indicates that the Parliament may move significantly to the right and anti-EU populist parties will gain seats across Europe. According to a recent poll by the ECFR, right-wing parties are leading in nine EU countries. A poll published by the ECFR suggests that the far-right Identity and Democracy Group, which includes the AfD and Rassemblement National, could go from being the fifth to the third largest bloc in the European Parliament.

In February, in an attempt to address protesters’ concerns, EU agricultural ministers met and urged the European Commission to commit to a targeted review of the Common Agricultural Policy, as well as trade agreements, the European Green Deal, and Ukrainian imports.

That said, many farmers and agricultural unions associated with the protests are not happy about far-right involvement and have distanced themselves from such groups. Some farmers have joined protests with anti-racist messages. Banners with the slogan “farming is colourful, not brown” were flown from tractors at demonstrations in Germany, “brown” being a reference to the Nazi brown shirts.

Farmers in Romania rejected calls by far-right senator Diana Șoșoacă to join a protest in Bucharest in January. As a result, only 20 individuals participated in the protest outside the parliament.

Farmers may be unhappy about EU legislation, but they are not inherently anti-environment. Many argue that it is the agro-industrial system and the constant pressure to increase yields and improve competitiveness that has caused the agricultural industry in Europe to become so environmentally damaging.

Rural sociologist Natalia Mamonova suggests that European leaders are trying to solve the continent’s environmental problems with the same mindset that created them in the first place: “Most of the green projects that aim to achieve sustainable development and zero-sum emissions follow the growth logic, or ‘green neoliberalism’ – they aim to expand and invigorate markets through the sustainability movement – are based solely on economic calculations, and place the heaviest burden on farmers.”

Indeed, many farmers might be open to progressive green policies aimed at tackling climate change if these attempted to dismantle the agro-industrial complex, structured by the likes of huge supermarket chains, and freed farmers from the cycle of scale enlargement and technologically driven intensification. A new development paradigm is required.

These arguments have been made by various movements of farmers, farmer activists and environmentalists in Europe, such as Les Soulèvements de la Terre in France, Nos Plantamos in Spain, and Arbeitsgemeinschaft bäuerliche Landwirtschaft in Germany. These groups have also been involved in the farmers’ protests in Europe to varying extents but distance themselves from far-right groups and proactively advocate for anti-racist farming movements.

The far-right has also used the farmers’ protests to promote attacks on climate policies. Farmers’ concerns with environmental regulations and perceived conflict between public demands for cheap food and climate-friendly processes have provided fertile ground for the far-right to push its climate-crisis-denying movements and rhetoric. This could hamper efforts to tackle climate change and could dismantle environmental policies, undermining the European Green Deal and wider climate policy.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Searchlight magazine

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