The battle between French winemakers and the government reached new levels yesterday, when thousands of producers converged on the town of Beziers in a demonstration that descended into a street battle between authorities and protestors.

Riot police were forced to use tear gas at workers from the French wine industry demanded aid to help combat the economic pressure from foreign wine imports. French press reported between 5,000 and 8,000 demonstrators, who attacked some 1,000 police with stones and firecrackers and set fire to trees and trashcans.

The winemakers are demanding that aid promised to them in September to offset losses from New World wines in particular, be put into effect. The French wine industry is currently suffering from over-production and a fall in prices.

The president of the National Interprofessional Office of Wines (ONIVINS), Daniel Verdier, called on Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to meet the wine producers. He was quoted in the French press saying: "The Prime Minister must assume his responsibilities and listen to our demands."

Also quoted was Jean Huillet, president of the local wine producers cooperative for the Herault region, and one of the leaders of the protest. He said: "The financial situation has become catastrophic."

Huillet explained that while last year producers made FF16 (US$2.15) per hectolitre for ordinary wines, this year they will not make more than FF10.

Meanwhile the French press agency, Agence France-Presse, reported that some 20 protestors trashed the headquarters of Frigovin, a wine merchant accused of selling Italian table wine under the label of a French wine from the Pays d'Oc region.