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Inside the great stand-off between French activists and oil investors

On most nights in Paris, the Salle Pleyel concert hall plays host to musical stars. But in recent times, it has also become the site of a less edifying annual spectacle — the showdown between environmentalists and shareholders of French oil company TotalEnergies.

Last month, police sprayed campaigners with tear gas, as they attempted to stage a sit-in at the annual investor meeting. Total’s small-time shareholders managed to get in, after being blocked last year, but under a deluge of chants. “I don’t care,” snarled one shareholder, in response to a protester’s invective about the need to save the planet.

Watching the exchange, these two camps appear to be more at odds than ever. To see such short shrift for climate concerns is startling. But protesters also know what gets clicks. Clips of such encounters do well on social media — and this face-off followed disruptions at other shareholder meetings, including those of Shell and BP in Britain.

“We’re faced with two parties that are not interested in dialogue,” says Jean-Michel Gauthier, a professor at HEC business school who worked at Total two decades ago.

“The activists are living up to their role, sounding the alarm, and saying [the energy transition] must be accelerated,” Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told reporters. 

This warmth towards environmental campaigners contrasts with the government’s attitude towards demonstrators who participated in the recent mass protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms.

But it also underscores the growing pressure on the fossil fuel industry. Companies such as Total are having an increasingly difficult time justifying the pace of their green transitions.

Total’s chief executive, Patrick Pouyanné, is famously blunt. He struggles to digest how his ultra-rational vision of a world still hooked on oil, which will need time to pivot towards cleaner energy, is not shared by campaigners.

True to form on the morning of the shareholder meeting, he bemoaned the “whining accusations of greenwashing” in a speech. Outside, some protesters targeted him directly, chanting: “Pouyanné, chicken.” 

Total’s investment in wind and solar farms and other new forms of energy are not hogwash. This year the company has raised its budget for renewable energy investments to $5bn, out of a total $16bn-$18bn investment spend, compared with $4bn in 2022. But this position has elicited less enthusiasm from investors than peers in the US, who have stuck more firmly to their oil and gas roots, while not really moving the dial on public opinion.

“From a share perspective, Total is not trading at the level of its US peers and yet it’s still being pelted by eggs and tomatoes in the street,” says Gauthier. 

The group is starting to hit back. In one ongoing case, Total has sued Greenpeace in France for a symbolic €1 in damages over a report into its emissions, which the company says was misleading.

Last month, French newsletter La Lettre A got hold of an internal guide Total produced for its employees, advising them in a tongue-in-cheek manner on how to survive dinner parties. The company says the document was meant to help staff with responses to regular controversies. 

These include its $10bn Lake Albert oil project, and a related pipeline that will run through Uganda and Tanzania — a red line for those who advocate an end to new oil developments, and a recurring trigger for protests. 

“Clearly businesses can’t get out of fossil fuels in just one day. But when it comes to launching new projects, it’s extremely simple,” says Anne-Fleur Goll, a 26-year-old activist who also works in climate advisory at Deloitte.

Goll made a splash of her own last year, when she helped organise an open letter to Total from more than 800 students and graduates, who all said that they would never work at the company, namely due to the Ugandan pipeline. She feels that their response on the topic, was, as always, “defensive and condescending”.

Next year, it seems inevitable that TV cameras will be lining up at dawn outside Total’s and other oil groups’ shareholder meetings. In the meantime, though, a little more conversation would not go amiss.

sarah.white@ft.com

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