PARIS, Feb 25 (Reuters) Farmers' fears about bird flu soured France's main annual agriculture show today as the gala event began without any poultry on display for the first time.
President Jacques Chirac did his best to lift the gloom, tucking into some chicken and urging people not to panic over tests confirming the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu had struck a farm in the east of the EU's largest poultry producer.
But that was little comfort for the farmers at the exhibition, where around 3,000 farm animals were crammed into eight huge halls on the outskirts of Paris at the yearly showcase of France's rich agricultural tradition.
France announced curbs on fairs and exhibitions of live birds in October. Officials at the show said the ban was prudent to avoid the risk of spreading disease to birds across the country.
''Things are very bad. It's a very worrying time with the new cases of the virus,'' said Gilbert Limandas, a farmer who is head of the local branch of the FNSEA farmers union in the Ain department affected by the H5N1 strain.
''We will have to see how things evolve in terms of consumption but many farmers are facing financial problems. The government has announced an aid package but it is not enough.'' Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who is due to visit the show on Tuesday, has announced aid of 52 million euros (61.85 million dollar).
But problems are growing for France's poultry industry, worth 6 billion euros a year. Poultry sales in France are already down by about 30 percent and Japan decided on Friday to ban all French poultry imports.
''We calculate that we lost 40 million euros in January,'' said Eugene Schaefer, head of the French poultry farming confederation, comparing last month to January 2005.
Many farmers are concerned H5N1 will spread and some are stunned that it has hit a relatively isolated farm.
''It's a big psychological blow. It's very hard to take,'' the farm's owner, Daniel Clair, said by telephone.
Health Minister Xiavier Bertrand acknowledged the psychological affect of the outbreak of bird flu, telling Europe 1 radio: ''We must not give in to hysteria.'' Franck Boucey, a 38-year-old farmer in the northern region of Brittany, has locked up his 10,000 head of poultry for two weeks to protect them from migrating birds thought to carry the virus.
''We sold 11 percent less in January, and if bird flu strikes here, it will be a catastrophe,'' he told Liberation newspaper.
Like other farmers, he blamed media hype for inciting a panic.
Jean-Michel Lematayer, the head of the FNSEA union, put on a brave face. He said the absence of the poultry sector from the show did not detract from its significance.
''There are no poultry this year, but that won't stop us from explaining the consequences of this crisis for the industry,'' he said. ''It's certainly the best time and the best place for the producers to open up a dialogue with consumers.'' Reuters SK VP0128