Paris - French farmers will start a blockade of oil refineries and fuel depots on Sunday evening in protest at plans by Total to use imported palm oil at a biofuel facility, a move that has fanned farmer discontent over unfair competition. At least five sites will be blocked on Sunday evening, with a total of 13 sites blocked from 9 am Monday, Christiane Lambert, president of the FNSEA farmers union told France Info television in an interview.
The French authorities last month gave oil and gas major Total permission to use palm oil as one of the feedstocks at its La Mede biofuel refinery, in southern France, infuriating farmers who grow local oilseed crops like rapeseed and environmentalists who blame palm oil cultivation for deforestation in southeast Asia. The organisers say the blockade, to run for three days initially, is aimed at pressuring the government to curb palm oil use at La Mede and to address other grievances like imports of South American meat: “Our target is the state,” Lambert said, adding that Total’s decision on palm oil was “the last straw”. Fuel shortages were not expected as a result of the blockade given France’s network of emergency fuel reserves and in the absence of sympathy action by fuel sector workers.
Palm oil is cheaper than rapeseed oil as a feedstock for biodiesel fuel, and French farmers say its growing use has added to their longstanding competitive disadvantage because of high taxes and strict environmental regulations in France. Total argues its refining plan involves less palm oil than allowed by the authorities, offers an outlet for local rapeseed and will develop large-scale recycling of used oil and fat. Palm oil has been widely criticised in Europe for environmental destruction and some lawmakers are pushing for a ban on its use in biofuel as part of new European Union energy targets.
The issue has caused friction with Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s two largest palm oil producers, with Malaysian officials warning of trade repercussions including in the possible purchase of French fighter jets. The refinery protests in France also illustrate a souring relationship between farmers in the EU’s biggest agricultural producer and the government of President Emmanuel Macron. Many farmers welcome the president’s call for fairer farmgate prices as part of a food chain review last year, but they have been irked by Macron’s attempt to phase out common weedkiller glyphosate before other EU countries.