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France's Total faces outcry after winning back palm oil tax break

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Paris (AFP)

Several French lawmakers demanded Friday a new vote over a controversial tax break for using palm oil to create biofuel, after energy giant Total successfully lobbied to have the benefit restored.

Parliament excluded palm oil from tax breaks for biofuel sources last year, a huge blow for a new Total refinery which began operating in July.

But on Thursday evening, lawmakers approved without debate an amendment to push back the palm oil exclusion to 2026, despite an unfavourable opinion from the budget legislation's rapporteur, a member of President Emmanuel Macron's centrist LREM party.

The amendment was pushed by MPs from the Bouches-du-Rhone department on the Mediterranean coast, where the refinery is located.

Environmentalists say palm oil drives deforestation, with vast areas of Southeast Asian rainforest having been logged or set ablaze in recent decades to make way for plantations.

"MPs in the majority, in collaboration with the government, have given in to Total's shameful lobbying," the Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth) advocacy group said after the vote.

It called the renewed tax break a "fiscal present" valued at 70 to 80 million euros ($77-$88 million).

The rapporteur, Joel Giraud, told AFP on Friday that "we got screwed".

"If the group requests it, I will demand a second vote," he said.

But the budget ministry said Friday that no new vote was planned "for the time being."

Total had filed a lawsuit against the parliament's decision last year, saying lawmakers had unlawfully singled out palm oil.

But last month the constitutional court rejected that argument, saying "legislators, knowing about the global palm oil farming conditions, used objective and rational criteria" towards achieving the goal of reducing emission of greenhouse gases.

Total has pledged it would process no more than 300,000 tonnes of certifiably sustainable palm oil per year at the Mede refinery, one of the largest in Europe, employing 250 people.

It said the certification ensured there had been no deforestation to produce the oil and would result in at least a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels.

But that has failed to convince environmentalists, with Greenpeace staging a blockade and protest last month at the site near the Mediterranean port city of Marseille.

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