Total: the French firm the French love to hate

Total: the French firm the French love to hate

18th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Total is France's biggest company and has just made the biggest annual profit in the country's corporate history. Yet the energy giant has long been the firm the French public likes most to hate, and now even the government is attacking it.

PARIS - "Nicolas Sarkozy wants to make capitalism more ethical? Start with Total!" screamed the front-page headline of the communist daily L'Humanité, referring to France's right-wing president.

The once-powerful French communists have less clout these days, but their anger was shared across the political spectrum after the oil group said last week it would slash jobs despite having just made gigantic profits.

Employment Minister Laurent Wauquiez branded the job cuts "scandalous."
"That a group like Total, which made billions in profits, isn't able to set an example in terms of employment at a time like this sticks in my throat," he said.

Total's announcement that it would shed around 550 jobs came less than a month after its parent group said it had made a French record profit of nearly 14 billion euros (18 billion dollars) last year.

The group insisted that no worker would be forced out and that most cuts would be achieved through retirements.

But the news did little to endear the company, which is present in 130 countries and ranks among the world's top oil producers, to the French public.

An opinion survey that monitors how much the French like their country's top firms puts Total right at the bottom of a list of thirty (with the state-controlled EDF electricity firm at the top).

Six out of ten French have a poor image of the company, according to the survey, conducted by the Ipsos pollsters and the Posternak-Margerit public relations firm before the latest job cuts were announced.

"They have failed to exploit the feelings of pride that being the top French company should inspire," Claude Posternak of Posternak-Margerit said when the poll came out.

The reasons are legion.

The company is currently in the dock in a court in the south-western town of Toulouse alongside one of its subsidiaries, AZF, over a chemical plant explosion in 2001 that killed 31 people.

Total, whose impressive earnings are due to record oil prices in the first half of 2008, has paid out millions of euros in compensation but has denied any wrongdoing over the blast, which prosecutors say was caused by negligence.

This trial opened just a year after another court ruled that the oil giant was partly liable for a giant oil spill from the tanker Erika that polluted swathes of the coast of the north-western  French region of Brittany.

The 1999 spill was one of France's worst environmental disasters, and an incident that made huge numbers of French people hostile to the oil group.

Total has also come under fire for allegedly cosying up to unsavoury regimes in Africa and Asia.

Photoby Rémi Jouan (CaptainHaddock), wikipediaThe most high-profile case was when it was accused of using forced labour provided by the military regime in Myanmar to build a gas pipeline.

Many commentators agree that the company's public relations strategy has long been ineffective.

But its jobs announcement last week sparked particular ire, coming as it did just days after the French unemployment rate rose to 8.2 percent, with 2.2 million people out of work.

President Sarkozy has responded to the economic crisis with a call for the rules governing businesses to be rewritten to make them less beholden to shareholders and more concerned with the welfare of workers.

Sarkozy's defeated rival in the 2007 presidential race, the Socialist Segolene Royal, has called for the state to tax Total's profits and "inject them massively into alternative energies to prepare the growth of tomorrow."

But despite the government's loud protests, it is unlikely to take any action against a company with which it has long worked hand in glove, said Philippe Braud of the Sciences Po institute in Paris.

"The government wants to dissociate itself from Total's negative image and pander to public opinion," he said, adding that this was merely "political symbolism."

The government's close relationship with Total was highlighted Friday when Prime Minister Francois Fillon said it was one of France's finest firms and "one of those that brings in the most wealth to France."

Total says it wants the French to like it more. It notes that it employs 37,000 people in the country, does its best to protect the environment in all countries where it is active, and pays huge taxes to the French state.

But it says that it suffers from a stereotypical image of oil companies as callous and profit-hungry polluters.

"Our concern is not to be loved, that would be simply dreaming," company spokesman Yves-Marie Dalibard told AFP. "What we are trying to do is to be accepted."

Rory Mulholland

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