French minister denounces "illegal" refinery blockades

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France's biggest agriculture union on Wednesday told its farmers to suspend a blockade of refineries and fuel depots that had entered its third day over palm oil imports and unfair competition, a union official said.

According to the president of the National Federation of Agricultural Holders' Unions, Christiane Lambert, 13 sites will be blocked early Monday following five that were blocked on Sunday. The companies, on the other hand, have urged people to not panic-buy gas as it would result in shortages.

Lambert told Franceinfo that the blockades were meant to pressure the French government over recent trade agreements that would allow imports of meat, sugar, and ethanol from countries "that do not respect the same conditions of production as French products". This blockade is illegal.

The minister called on angry protesters to sit for negotiations to reach "adequate solutions", insisting that the government would not back down on its decision to allow energy giant Total to import palm oil at a biofuel plant in La Mede, southeastern France.

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.

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Separately, junior minister Brune Poirson, who reports to environment minister Nicolas Hulot, said on Twitter that "France wants to stop the rise in use from one year to the other" for both palm oil and soybean oil. The farmers are strongly opposed to the importation of the product which, they say, will likely cut into the profits of locally produced rapeseed oil.

The move is aimed at reducing the use of palm oil blamed for causing deforestation in southeast Asia, he said.

Hulot had said previous 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.

Small farmers in Malaysia, the world's second largest palm oil producer after Indonesia, said a move to cap palm oil exports at an European Union level would be discriminatory and a "betrayal".

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