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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

French farmers start refineries blockade over palm oil imports

Five sites barricaded on Sunday with tractors and rubble, and another eight expected to be blocked on Monday

Farming union members demonstrate as they block the access of French oil giant Total's La Mede refinery in Chateauneuf-les-Martigues, southern France. AFP/BERTRAND LANGLOIS
Farming union members demonstrate as they block the access of French oil giant Total's La Mede refinery in Chateauneuf-les-Martigues, southern France. AFP/BERTRAND LANGLOIS

French farmers began a blockade of oil refineries and fuel depots on Sunday evening over plans by Total to use imported palm oil at a biofuel plant, which have fanned farmers' anger over unfair competition.

The Vatry fuel depot in the Marne region of north-eastern France was the first to be blocked as about 100 farmers set up barricades with tractors and mounds of rubble, a spokesman from the FNSEA farmers union told Reuters.

At least five sites were to be blocked on Sunday, with a total of 13 sites disrupted from 9am Monday, Christiane Lambert, president of the FNSEA said in an interview with France Info television.

French oil and gas company Total, which operates five refineries and nine petrol depots in France, said late on Sunday that farmers have gathered at two depots but it had taken measures together with authorities to limit disruptions.

It urged clients not to rush to petrol stations to fill their tanks, which could spark panic buying and shortages.

French authorities last month gave 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 such as rapeseed and environmentalists who blame palm oil cultivation for deforestation in south-east Asia.

The organisers say the blockade, which is scheduled to run for three days initially, is aimed at putting pressure on the government to curb the use of palm oil at La Mede, and to address other grievances such as imports of South American meat.

“Our target is the state,” Ms 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 to date of sympathy action by fuel sector workers.

Palm oil is cheaper than rapeseed oil as a feedstock for biodiesel and French farmers say its growing use has added to their long-standing competitive disadvantage because of high taxes and strict environmental regulations in France.

Total argues that 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 politicians 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 that could affect a potential deal to buy 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 farm-gate prices as part of a food chain review last year, but they have been angered by Mr Macron’s attempt to phase out common weedkiller glyphosate before other EU countries.