By Gus Trompiz
PARIS, (Reuters) - French farmers held protests across the country on Wednesday, including a pre-dawn street blockade near the farm ministry in Paris, to attack what they see as burdensome environmental regulations linked to European Union targets on water quality.
Environmental rules have become a major grievance in recent years for farmers in the EU's top agricultural economy, who blame such measures for eroding their competitiveness.
Wednesday's protests were triggered by new steps taken by the government to resolve a long-running dispute with the EU's executive over France's failure to meet water quality targets under a directive on nitrates dating back to 1991.
"What we want is to curb the development of environmental regulation as proposed currently, which is going to lead to the ruin of livestock and grain farmers," Christophe Derycke, head of a farm union in Seine-et-Marne area east of Paris, told reporters at the early-morning protest in the French capital.
Farmers from the Paris region, who are known for their eye-catching actions in the capital, blocked an avenue close to the agriculture ministry and other government buildings for over an hour, scattering straw and displaying slogans including a call for Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll to resign.
"The dialogue has broken down and we are asking (President) Francois Hollande to replace his minister," said Damien Greffin, head of the main farmers' group FNSEA for the Paris region.
Farmers, whose protests included a gathering of about 1,000 tractors in La Roche-sur-Yon in western France, have been angered by a new, enlarged list of areas classified as vulnerable to water pollution, which entails restrictions on farming, and the possibility of tighter rules on use of fertilisers and disposal of livestock effluents.
The government said it was obliged to comply with the EU's requirements in order to avoid financial penalties for non-compliance with the nitrates directive.
"France will seek a balance between EU demands, environmental objectives and the interests of farmers," the agriculture and environment ministries said in a statement.
Environmental protection has also been criticised by farmers and governments in other European countries as the EU debates a reform of its common farm policy, in which draft proposals call for more subsidies to be tied to environmental measures.
The details of the reform are yet to be negotiated as European leaders need to agree first on the next EU long-term budget, with France trying to preserve as much farm spending as possible amid calls from other states for deep cuts. (Additional reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide; editing by Keiron Henderson)