France and Total under fire for 'financing' regime

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The Independent Online

The French government and France's largest company, Total, were struggling yesterday to contain growing criticism of the oil company's record in Burma.

Total and the French government have rejected pleas from Burmese opposition and French trades unions and human rights group for the oil giant to suspend its activities in the Yadana gas field in southern Burma.

Critics point out Total is the largest economic operator in Burma and a significant conduit of cash to the military regime. Several human rights groups have accused Total of making use of forced or child labour – something the oil company angrily rejects.

Paris, and the company, argue that Total's presence is, on the whole, a force for good. Withdrawal would allow carte blanche for Chinese or other companies which would be "less respectful of ethical issues".

"Our departure would threaten a worsening of the situation for the (Burmese) population," Total said ina communiqué.

France's Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, this week rejected suggestions that Total is a, de facto, ally of the military junta in Rangoon. He can claim to be something of an expert on the issue. In 2003, when he was out of office, his company BK Conseil was paid to advise Total on how to improve the public image of its Burmese operations.

In a 19-page report at that time, Mr Kouchner rejected allegations that Total had used forced or child labour in Burma. He praised Total's "socio-economic" programme for Burmese workers – including health care centres. He suggested the oil company should open a "show room" in Rangoon to publicise its positive achievements.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has also drawn criticism this week for urging French companies to "freeze" new investments in Burma. No other French company operates in the country. Total, as the President presumably knew, has not made new investments in Burma for years.

A French diplomat told the newspaper Liberation off the record yesterday: "Annoucing a freeze of what is already frozen is hardly revolutionary. It allows (the president) to surf on the notion of a French 'new deal' for human rights, while protecting French economic interests."

Les Amis de la Terre – the French branch of Friends of the Earth – has called for tougher EU sanctions against Burma and against European companies operating there. "The Burmese junta draws all its cash from the pillage of natural resources by foreign private companies," the group said.

The left-wing French trades union federation, the Confédération Génerale du Traval (CGT) has called on Total to "halt all extraction of gas and freeze all transfers" to the Burmese regime "so long as human rights are being abused".

Meanwhile, campaigners have also been targeting the US oil giant Chevron Corp, the only sizeable US company still investing in Burma. The group EarthRights International has written to the company's chairman Dave O'Reilly urging Chevron to use its influence with the regime and ask the military government to use restraint when confronting the demonstrators.

"The government of Burma is not only your host but also your client and your business partner in the Yadana gas pipeline consortium," their letter said. "So long as you remain in Burma, therefore, it is incumbent upon you to use your influence to help prevent mass bloodshed. Please do not stand by as the killing begins again."