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Farmers hand out free milk in Paris in price protest

PARIS (Reuters) - French dairy farmers handed out thousands of liters of milk in central Paris Tuesday in a bid to boost public support for a 12-day-old strike during which they have refused to deliver milk in protest at low prices.

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Members of farm group the Confederation Paysanne gathered in the Place de la Republique, a traditional venue for protests in the French capital, to distribute 22,000 liters of milk by filling plastic bottles brought by members of the public.

“We decided to stage a milk handout to explain to the public what our problems are, how we got to this point and why producers are forced to pour milk away in fields,” Yves Sauvaget, a dairy producer from northwest France, told Reuters.

French farmers have dumped millions of liters of milk since launching their strike movement on September 10 in an attempt to force the European Union to overhaul its dairy market regulation in order to boost prices.

Groups backing the protests say more than half of dairy farmers have taken part in some French regions, but dairy manufacturers have cited participation at no more than 10 percent and said the effect on supply was minor.

Under the aegis of the European Milk Board (EMB), dairy farmers in several other EU countries have joined the milk boycott, with Belgium seeing some of the largest protests.

Striking producers in France welcomed an announcement on Monday by the farm minister that banks would offer 250 million euros in special loans for milk farmers, with repayments deferred until 2011 and interest capped at 3 percent.

But they said the milk boycott would go on until the EU decided to change its stance on milk regulation.

French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire said Monday he would seek an extraordinary EU farm council at the start of October to discuss changing the dairy regulatory system.

Producers blame the EU for increasing milk quotas in preparation for their abolition scheduled for 2015, a criticism rejected so far by the European Commission that has defended its measures to support the dairy industry and pointed to signs of an improvement in the European sector.

Reporting by Adelaziz Boumzar and Elizabeth Pineau; writing by Gus Trompiz, Editing by Peter Blackburn