Members of France's leading farmer's unions, the FNSEA and Jeunes Agriculteurs (Young Farmers) union called on their members to occupy 14 oil refineries and fuel depots run by French multinational oil and gas company Total for three days.
The occupation, which began on Sunday night, is taking place at oil refineries in Lyon, Gonfreville-l'Orcher, Le Havre, Grandpuits (Seine-et-Marne), La Mède (Bouches-du-Rhone), as well as the oil depots at the port of Rhone Edouard Herriot, the port of the Rhine, Vatry (Marne), Lespinasse near Toulouse, Coignières (Yvelines) and Cournon in Puy-de-Dôme.
Farmers also planned to prevent access to oil refineries at Dunkirk (North), Grigny (Essonne), Gennevilliers (Hauts-de-Seine) and one in Donges (Loire-Atlantique).
Farmers parked tractors in front of refinery gates while dumping piles of haystacks, dirt, manure and potatoes.
At least 200 farmers also began to dump dirt on the roads leading to the Total refinery in Grandpuits (Seine-et-Marne) at around 11pm on Sunday night and installed some 40 tractors, according to Sébastien Guérinot, president of the Jeunes Agricultures in the department.
“We are only blocking Total's fuel trucks that want to get in or out. Not the staff, nor other vehicles, nor help,” Guérinot told the French press.
To put the action in perspective France has seven refineries in total and around 200 fuel depots around the country. It is unclear how long the action will go one for with unions saying the initial blockade will be three days, but may be continued. Some farmers have already made it clear they are in it for the long run.
So, why are French farmers going to all this trouble?
They have various motives but one of the primary causes is their objection to palm oil being imported into the biofuel market.
“France imports several products that don't respect the rules applied to French farmers. It concerns South American meat and Spanish wine as well as palm oil,” said Damien Greffon, who leads the FRSEA farmers' union in the Paris region.
They argue that the French government is asking its own farmers to meet standards that are not being imposed on imported products.
Recently, the government authorized Total to operate a biorefinery at La Mède using palm oil imported from Asia.
The French oil group plans to use “300,000 tons” of oil per year.
However, a spokesperson for Total told AFP that 300,000 tons will cover less than 50 percent of the total supply of the refinery.
This deal is nevertheless perceived by farmers unions as a competition to the French biodiesel industry, which mainly uses rapeseed oil produced in France.
Total's chief executive Patrick Pouyanne has pledged to buy 50,000 tons of French rapeseed, also known as canola oil, as part of the 650,000 tons of oil which will be used each year at the La Mede refinery outside the southern city of Marseille.
As a result, producers in the rapeseed sector feel threatened.
“The government is asking us to move upmarket and at the same time it allows large groups to import low-cost palm oil from deforestation,” Olivier Dauger who is in charge of renewable energy at the FNSEA told Le Figaro.
Samuel Vandaele, Secretary General of Jeunes Agricultures told AFP: “We are not against imports, we are not for protectionist measures, because we do not produce all the products, but we want the government to be coherent and that imports are all subject to equal standards, otherwise French agriculture will disappear.”
France's Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert called the blockades “illegal” and vowed not to go back on its agreement with Total to import palm oil. “
“It's not by blockading oil refineries that we will find an adequate solution,” Travert told French radio RTL.
Addressing the French farmers who produce rape seed oil Travert said: “Rapeseed producers don't have to be the poor parents of biofuel supply chains,” he said.
“I hope that in the future Total will be able to source rapeseed from producers in the best way,” he said.
In recent summers France has seen similar blockades of fuel depots and refineries that have lasted several days.
The blockades led motorists to panic buy petrol and led to fuel shortages around the country with petrol stations having to put up “empty” signs or limit motorists to a maximum amount of fuel.