French minister slams 'illegal' oil refinery blockades

Workers blocking the access of French oil giant Total’s La Mede refinery in Chateauneuf-les-Martigues France

Lambert, who said unions wanted assurances that France would defend its farmers' interests more robustly in Brussels, signalled protests could resume if talks with the government did not yield enough.

Christiane Lambert, president of farmers' union FNSEA, said the blockades were meant to pressure the 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".

She called farmers to hold blockades until at least the morning.

France's main farmers' union earlier on Wednesday called on members to end the blockade, linked to anger over competition from agricultural imports including palm oil used for biofuel.

French farmers have reportedly blocked oil depots and refineries as part of a three-day protest campaign against palm oil imports, Reuters reported. "Do not rush into oil stations, it is often that which creates the shortage".

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

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The mostly symbolic blockade at La Mede was lifted around midday with farmers returning to work, according to a Reuters photographer on site.

Last month, authorities gave Total permission to use palm oil as a feedstock.

"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.

"This proposal is a betrayal of promises made by the French Government, and others in Europe, to the people of Malaysia", they said in a statement sent by Faces of Palm Oil lobby group.

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".