By Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS, Feb 23 (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande sang the praises of local produce at the annual French farm show, where the horse meat scandal added to French cattle breeders' downbeat mood.
Hollande, who was long the head of the rural Correze region, spent hours talking to livestock farmers, who worry that the discovery of horse meat in lasagnes and other processed foods labeled as beef-based will cast another cloud over their sector.
"We need to promote French quality, French production and French cattle breeding," Hollande told reporters at Europe's largest farm show.
He added that France will push for traceability and compulsory labelling of meat in processed foods at talks with EU partners.
In 2000, mandatory labelling was introduced for beef due to health concerns that stemmed from Europe's bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also called mad cow disease, crisis but labels on the origin of beef do not apply to processed food.
"The idea that prepared foods should have the same safety requirements as fresh butcher products will become evident in the coming months," Hollande said.
France has played a pivotal role in the horsemeat scandal as a company in southern France has been blamed for having mislabelled Romanian horse meat and resold it as beef to companies who make ready-made meals based on minced beef.
"People have confidence in their farmers, but not necessarily in their food," Xavier Beulin, the head of FNSEA, France's largest farm union, told Reuters.
Many farmers are worried the scandal will hit their sector, which struggles with the high cost of grain-based animal feed.
"When something like this happens just weeks before the show, it gives a bad image," said Florent Michard, 25, in front of the family's Prim'Holstein cows.
Official data show that French cattle breeders earn just 15,000 euros per year on average, compared to 72,000 to 80,000 euros a year for cereal growers and sugar beet farmers.
The socialist president said he aimed to shift part of EU farm subsidies to livestock farmers from crop growers, who are benefiting from high grain prices.
A visit to the Paris farm show - which attracts around 700,000 visitors a year - is a must for every French president and Hollande spent hours eating and drinking his way through the dozens of food stands, in the style of conservative former president and farmer's ally Jacques Chirac.
Hollande's immediate predecessor, the urbane conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, had a more difficult relationship with farmers and one of his visits to the show became notorious when he said "get lost, you jerk" to a visitor who he felt had insulted him.
The visit to a mostly successful sector - France is Europe's largest agricultural producer and grain exporter ahead of Germany - came as a break to Hollande who is facing a hostage crisis in Nigeria and a growing risk of recession.
At one point Hollande took a large Aubrac bull by the horns, as if to show he will tackle livestock farmers' woes head-on.
"With a gesture like that, he seemed to send us a message," the bull's breeder Jean-Pierre Besson told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau, writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Stephen Powell)