Dozens of French farmers blocked access to 13 refineries across the country on Monday to protest plans to import palm oil for use in biofuels, a move they denounce as unfair competition which jeopardises their livelihood.
Energy giant Total wants to import up to 300,000 tons a year of palm oil, which environmental advocates say has caused massive deforestation chiefly in southeast Asia.
French rapeseed and sunflower growers, who say they will lose out due to Total's imports, accuse foreign palm oil producers of failing to respect the regulatory requirements European producers must follow.
Farmers parked tractors in front of refinery gates while dumping piles of haystacks, dirt, manure and potatoes.
"France imports several products that don't respect the rules applied to French farmers. It concerns South American meat and Spanish wine as well as palm oil," said Damien Greffon, who leads the FRSEA farmers' union in the Paris region.
The protests are a sign of growing anger in France's farming communities which have so far not mobilised in large numbers against the government of President Emmanuel Macron since his election.
Public sector workers and railway staff have held regular demonstrations and strikes against the pro-business reforms introduced by the new centrist government since May 2017.
The farmers' protests began late Sunday and have been called for three days because "dialogue has broken down" with the government, Greffon said.
Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert said Monday that the government would not back down, adding that he would meet soon with unions as well as biofuels producers to discuss supplies and pricing.
"I want Total and biofuel producers to reach an agreement on a base price and a contract that will benefit rapeseed producers," Travert told RTL radio.
He also said there was no risk of a shortage of gasoline from the refinery blockades, though farmers have warned they are prepared for a long strike.
"We're not against imports... but for consumers, we want the government to be consistent and apply the same rules to imports, otherwise French agriculture will disappear," said Samuel Vandaele of the Young Farmers' union outside a Total refinery southeast of Paris.
Total's chief executive Patrick Pouyanne has pledged to buy 50,000 tons of French rapeseed, also known as canola oil, as part of the 650,000 tons of oil which will be used each year at the La Mede refinery outside the southern city of Marseille.
The farmers also have the support of environmental activists, and are hoping to rally support among consumers worried about unfair competition stemming from free-trade accords, including the CETA deal between the EU and Canada as well as ongoing talks with the EU and South American Mercosur nations.
"In South America the average cattle ranch has 24,000 cows, while in France we have on average just 80—and yet we're always being told to be more environmentally friendly," said Christiane Lambert, president of the FNSEA farmers' union, France's biggest.
Besides a ban on palm oil imports, she wants the government to outlaw agriculture imports produced using fertilisers, herbicides and other products prohibited in the EU as part of an agriculture law that will be debated in the Senate starting June 26.
Lambert is also calling for lower social charges on seasonal workers, "which are 27 percent higher than in Germany and 37 percent higher than in Italy."
The government has said there is no risk of fuel shortages from the blockades, since seven refineries are still operating.
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