UPDATE 1-France's Macron wants EU to help on farmers' crisis

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French farmers block roads, step up protests

President Macron asks EU to help with crisis

Wants EU to regulate Ukraine imports

Wants changes to Mercosur deal

Recasts with Macron, Belgian protests, Mercosur talks

By Yves Herman and Marco Trujillo

- French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday said he wants the European Union to regulate chicken and grain imports from Ukraine and to allow flexibility on some of the bloc's farming rules to help soothe anger among French farmers.

Macron, speaking during a state visit to Sweden as farmers parked tractors across highways in France and set bales of hay ablaze to partly block access to Toulouse airport, also said he does not want a draft trade deal with the Mercosur bloc of South American countries to be signed as it stands now.

The French protests follow similar action in other European countries, including Germany and Poland, ahead of European Parliament elections in June in which the far right, for whom farmers represent a growing constituency, is seen making gains.

In France, the government, wary of seeing the protests escalate and with an eye on the European elections, has already dropped plans to gradually reduce subsidies on agricultural diesel and promised to ease environmental regulations.

The government will also push its EU peers to agree to ease regulations on fallow farmland.

"We've asked for very concrete things for our farmers," said Macron, who will be at a summit of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday.

Macron said France wants "to have clear measures on imports from Ukraine because today we have in volume and quality things that are destabilising the European market, whether chicken or cereals."

The European Commission said earlier on Tuesday that it was continuing to pursue a trade agreement with the Mercosur bloc of countries, a day after the office of Macron said it understood the EU had put an end to talks.

Macron said he wants "clarity on Mercosur," adding that he did not want the agreement as it is currently drafted to be signed, for what he described as a lack of guarantees that imported products would have to follow similar rules as European ones.

Farmers in France, the EU's biggest agricultural producer, say they are not being paid enough, are choked by excessive regulation on environmental protection and face unfair competition from cheap imports.

FLEXIBILITY

Macron said he wanted more flexibility on some of the EU's joint agricultural rules, including on fallow land.

Farmers must meet certain conditions to receive EU subsidies - including a requirement to devote 4% of farmland to "non-productive" areas where nature can recover. That can be done by leaving land lying fallow.

Two EU officials told Reuters on Monday that the EU's executive Commission was looking into changing the fallow land rule, as requested by France, among other options to respond to the farmers' concerns.

Farmers are also looking for concrete support from the government.

"Whatever happens, we are determined to go to the end," farmer Jean-Baptiste Bongard said as crowds of farmers huddled together around small fires on a highway in Jossigny, near Paris, blocked by the tractors in the early hours.

"If the movement needs to last a month, then it will last a month," said Bongard, who took over the family business in July and finds it hard to compete with foreign producers who do not follow the same regulations.

A huge placard at the protest, "Let's save agriculture", was attached to one vehicle.

In Longvilliers, also near Paris, both carriageways of the highway were blocked with tractors, and bales of hay, with other traffic being diverted up a sliproad as a queue of cars snaked into the distance.

The regional prefect said that farmers had blocked the main access to Toulouse airport, but that people could still gain access via nearby parking lots. BFM TV said stacks of hay and tyres had been set on fire at a roundabout in front of the airport.

Belgian farmers planned to block the Zeebrugge container port on Tuesday, as the French protests spilled over.


(Additional reporting by Zhifan Liu, Tassilo Hummel, Elizabeth Pineau, Gus Trompiz, Piotr Lipinski, Benoit van Overstraeten and Geert de Clercq in Paris, Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alison Williams and Sharon Singleton)

((ingrid.melander@thomsonreuters.com, Twitter @IngridMelander; +33 1 80 98 12 61;))

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