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Economy

Farmers to picket French oil refineries in palm oil protest

media Total's refinery at Dunkirk in the north of France Reuters/P Rossignol

French farmers are to picket oil refineries this week in protests sparked by the government's decision to allow the Total oil company to import palm oil to produce biofuel. The move has also sparked criticism from environmentalists and oilworkers' unions ... but for quite different reasons.

The pickets of 13 refineries and depots, organised by two major farming unions, are to start on Sunday night and last until Wednesday at least and could go on longer.

The FNSEA and Jeunes Agriculteurs unions, many of whose members are large-scale farmers, said this weekend they expected about 100 farmers to join each one, with tractors and barbecues.

France has a total of seven refineries and 200 depots, so the country's fuel supply will not be completely cut off, but a picket at the Paris region's main depot at Grigny may stop supplies most of the Ile de France's depots.

Imports and European standards

The unions’ main demand is that the government applies the same rules to imported produce as it does to French ones and they are calling for the law on food currently being discussed to be amended to ban the import of goods treated with pesticides that are banned in the European Union.

But the spark that set off the current action was Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot’s decision to allow Total to use imported palm oil at a refinery near Marseille that has been converted from mineral oil use.

The farmers fear that palm oil, produced mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, will undercut sales of rapeseed, which is widely grown in France.

Environmental concerns

Green campaigners are also angered by the decision and are accusing Hulot, who was a high-profile environmentalist before President Emmanuel Macron recruited him to the government, of betraying their cause and France's commitments to the Cop21 climate change agreement.

They point out that pesticides are widely used on the plantations.

But, above all, they point out that vast swathes of tropical forests continue to be cleared for palm oil cultivation, often using slash-and-burn methods that contribute to south-east Asia's massive air pollution, reducing vegetation that is key to cutting CO2 emissions and destroying the habitats of rare and endangered species.

In January the European parliament called for the phasing out of palm oil in transport by 2021, although the European Commission has yet to decide on the question.

The environmentalists have won an unexpected ally in the form of the CGT trade union, which is trying to save jobs at the Marseille refinery with a "socially just and ecologically sustainable transition".

The fate of orangutans, rhinoceroses and tigers was "a long way from our main concerns", local oil workers' leader Fabien Cros told Le Monde newspaper. "But our contact with Friends of the Earth on demonstrations against Total made us aware of the environmental concerns and we have mutually enriched each other."

50% palm oil

Total points out that palm oil will be only 50 percent of the raw materials used by the refinery and the permit to operate stipulates that at least a quarter must be recycled.

There will also be an eight-megawatt solar farm at the site.

Claiming that the previous, Socialist government had threatened to close the refinery if it did not convert from mineral oil, Hulot argued. "After they've made an effort and invested, I can't ask them to give up."

Total was actually making a loss on mineral oil refinery there in 2015, according to the Journal du Dimanche weekly paper.

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