Mass street protests in Champagne last week reflect rising frustration over taxes and social charges, say winemakers and growers.

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Protesters gather in Chalons-en-Champagne. Image credit: Francois Nascimbeni / Getty / AFP

Around 1,500 Champagne producers and growers joined farmers’ unions in last week’s protests, which centred on Chalons-en-Champagne and were part of co-ordinated action by agriculture workers across France.

The Champenois are better known for prestige cuvees than political activism, and their willingness to protest highlights uneasy relations between France’s wine industry and the current government.

‘Winemakers are exasperated,’ said Benoit Tarlant, of his eponymous Champagne house in Oeuilly and who joined the protest march in Chalons.

‘The straw that broke the camel’s back was questioning the contract for harvest workers.’

Since 2001, French vineyard owners have been exempt from paying social charges for temporary harvest workers. But, on 6 November, France’s National Assembly voted to end the exemption, following several weeks of speculation.

‘Champagne employs 120,000 harvest workers, around a third of [wine] those across the whole country,’ Tarlant told Decanter.com.

‘And the government wants to take more money. It is absurd. There was already a huge increase in employers’ costs last year. If only this money was used well, but we don’t think it is.’

Bernard Farges, head of the federation of appellation wines, CNAOC, and also president of Bordeaux’s wine council, the CIVB, said he was ‘furious’ about the vote on harvest contracts, according to French wine website Vitisphere.

The motion is scheduled to be heard by France’s Senate in December. Agriculture minister Stephane Le Foll said winemakers will make up any shortfall with fresh exemptions in other areas in 2015.

Pascal Ferrat, head of the Champagne growers’ union, SGV, said winemakers felt under attack from the government. ‘In the past, we looked to conquer. Today, we are always defending our interests.’

Succession charges are another concern for vineyard owners, due to rising land prices, and Ferrat added that more should be done to safeguard family farms, which he called ‘our economic fabric’.

Written by Chris Mercer