French minister slams 'illegal' oil refinery blockades

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French farmers launched blockades of the country's 14 refineries and hundreds of Total S.A. fuel depots since Sunday evening to protest imports of low cost palm oil for manufacturing biofuel, a move they denounce as unfair competition that jeopardizes their livelihood.

The logo of French oil giant Total on a flag at La Defense business and financial district in Courbevoie near Paris, France.

Farm Minister Stephane Travert said on Monday the farmers' blockades were illegal and the government would not rescind the decision to allow Total to use imported palm oil.

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

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.

The farmers' protests began late Sunday and have been called for three days because "dialogue has broken down" with the government, Greffon said.

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Hulot had said past year France would take steps to restrict the use of palm oil in producing biofuels in order to reduce deforestation in the countries of origin, without detailing the measures.

"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.

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.

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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.

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