French riders protest over tax, saying horses will suffer

By Thierry Chiarello PARIS (Reuters) - Thousands of horse-lovers paraded their animals through central Paris on Sunday in a protest against a planned sales tax rise they say will put riding centers out of business and send horses to the slaughterhouse. The protest by riders from across France came a day after unions in the western region of Brittany organized a march for jobs and social protection attended by thousands, one of many in the region in recent weeks. Anger at taxation, unemployment stuck at 11 percent and sluggish economic growth has sent thousands of people into the streets across the country over the past two months. On Thursday, farmers blocked roads around Paris with tractors to protest against a so-called "eco-tax" on road freight and the planned sales tax. Organizers of Sunday's protest say the EU-mandated rise of France's VAT to 20 percent as of January 1 - from the 7 percent reduced rate paid by equestrian centers today - will shut down a fifth of centers across France. Some 6,000 jobs will be lost, they estimate, and 80,000 horses will have to be sent to slaughter. "Riders, up in arms!" shouted protesters carrying signs reading "Sales tax at 20 percent - Death of Horses and Ponies". GUILLOTINE A guillotine was wheeled through the streets, its blade poised above a toy horse's head. Another horse effigy was mounted on a crucifix. One sign read "Too many taxes = Spanghero," a reference to the French firm the government said sold horsemeat labeled as beef that made its way through the European food chain, prompting a food scandal earlier this year. "It's a death blow," Serge Lecomte, president of the French Horseriding Federation, told Reuters TV. "That's why people are so worried, because they see the end of their activity and the end of a lot of establishments, the jobs and the horses." Some ponies sported red bonnets like those worn by protesters in Brittany, and by peasants who rose up against tax rises in the 17th century. Some marchers wore horse masks. Socialist President Francois Hollande's popularity ratings are at record lows, with voters angry not just over a lack of jobs, factory closures and taxes but over issues ranging from immigration to bickering within the government. The government has been pushing to maintain the 7 percent reduced sales tax rate for equestrian centers since March 2012, when the European Union said the rate was improperly applied and threatened a heavy fine. As negotiations with the EU continue, the government has said it will prop up the sports sector with additional funds to make up for the higher sales tax, beginning in 2014. (Writing by Alexandria Sage; editing by Andrew Roche)