PARIS (AP) -- Facing France's worst agriculture crisis in 30 years, President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged Tuesday to provide 1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in bank loans for cash-strapped farmers and promised to push the EU to offer more aid.
Sarkozy says the "unprecedented" aid package was in response to an equally unprecedented crisis in French farming, which has seen prices for production shrink 20 percent over the last year as demand decreased amid the global credit crunch.
Sarkozy spoke at a meeting with farmers in the Jura region of eastern France. Besides loans, Sarkozy also pledged 650 million euros ($965 million) in other aid for the country's farmers, one of the conservative president's core electoral supporters in the last election.
The aid announcement comes after weeks of protests by farmers in France and across Europe, upset at falling prices for milk, cereals and other agricultural commodities that has shrunk their revenue.
France is Europe's largest agricultural producer, with total output last year valued at about 65 billion euros ($96.7 billion) out of an EU total of 355 billion euros ($528 billion). Agriculture makes up 1.5 percent of France's gross domestic product, compared to 1.2 percent in the EU overall, according to European statistical agency Eurostat.
"Agriculture is a strategic sector that is absolutely vital to our national identity," Sarkozy said.
His announcement also has political overtones, since polls show Sarkozy facing falling support ahead of regional elections in March.
The French announcement of more farm aid comes two days before a summit of European Union government leaders in Brussels. Sarkozy said at that meeting he will press the EU Commission to speed up its revamping dairy rules so they are ready early next year.
This fall, protesting grain growers blocked Paris' famed Champs-Elysees Avenue with burning bales of hay to draw attention to their problems and dairy farmers dumped rivers of milk across fields in France, Belgium and other countries to protest collapsing milk prices.
Just last week, the European Union agreed to give the dairy sector an extra 280 million euros ($420 million) in special aid, caving in to farmers' vocal demands.
In all, the EU farm and rural development budget for next year is 52 billion euros ($78 billion) -- the single largest expenditure in its budget.
Starting in the 1990s, the EU has tried to wean itself of farming subsidies so it would not keep overproducing and creating warehouses of butter mountains and lakes of excess milk and wine. The process has had varying success.