This is new money”, he said in a radio interview. “This is to fill the gap until an important medium-term move – the re-orientation of the CAP” in 2010.

He was due to unveil extra payments for the sheep sector and individual financial help for cash-strapped farms at a meeting between with farming organisations Wednesday evening.

The funds earmarked for single farm payments left unused by their holders should go towards a ewe premium top-up. Patrick Ferrere, director general of France's leading farmers union FNSEA, said the €25 to 30 million thus made available “should at least be doubled to keep sheep farmers going until 2010.”

What we are asking for is an increase in the coupled ewe premium, not in SFPs”, added Audrey Mathieu of Fédération Nationale Ovine, FNSEA's sheep branch.

The organisation is calling for an EU-compatible way of introducing a €160 million package to bring sheep support in line with its beef equivalent in France – possibly under the form of compensation for the consequences of the blue-tongue epidemic.

The government plan's second key measure targets farmers who find themselves short of cash because of rising costs and falling prices, such as dairy farmers or maize growers. Local committees comprising banks as well as health and pension institutions should start examining their situation on a case-by-case basis from next week and could offer temporary solutions including repayments freezes and social contribution breaks.

The move comes after several weeks of growing discontent among farmers, culminating in nationwide street protests on November 7. Over 10,000 farmers then organised giant picnics and parked their tractors in front of supermarkets and politician's constituency offices to highlight falling farm incomes.

While dairy farmers have been picketing factories in a growing number of milk price rows, the demonstrators are now closing in on Paris: a protest was scheduled outside the department of agriculture during Wednesday's meeting, and sheep farmers are due to graze their animals at the foot of the Eiffel tower on Thursday.