France's sins of the present Nation's oil companies deserve scrutiny for their policies abroad

November 09, 1997|By Saman Zia-Zarifi

Even as the French are flagellating themselves for their sins of the past, through the painful public process of Maurice Papon's trial for crimes a-gainst humanity, one thing is clear: French oil companies have not yet learned a lesson.

Papon, a lifelong civil servant whose career peaked with a stint in the Cabinet during the 1970s, is on trial for his alleged complicity during the Vichy regime with the conveyance of Jews to Nazi concentration camps - an unexplored part of French history.

During the trial and the examination of Papon's personality, serious questions arose about the role of French police (Papon was the chief of police in Paris during the early 1960s) in the death of several demonstrators protesting France's conduct during the Algerian war of independence - another murky chapter of French history. In shedding light on these shadowy events, the Papon trial has spurred French society into questioning its past values and conduct. However, this examination apparently does not extend to French actions in the present, and certainly not to French multinational oil companies.

French oil companies, with the government's full support, are winning the race to the bottom among western multinationals for operating in the world's most bleak human rights environments. The French business community views itself as - and, in fact, is - exempt from the sort of public and legal pressure forcing American, English and Dutch companies to pay attention to human rights.

In the last year, alone, Elf and Total, newly privatized titans of French Industry (Elf is the largest French industrial corporation), have been accused of, among other things, using slave labor, genocide, torture (in Myanmar, in Total's case); cooperating with some of the world's worst regimes (including transactions with Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and China); and recently in Congo-Brazzaville, where Elf allegedly fanned the flames, and perhaps even set the sparks, of civil war (to maintain the company's profitable operations there).

The French reaction? If not bored obliviousness, then outright glee. This month, when serious allegations arose from Congo-Brazzaville that Elf had financed and helped the rebellious Cobra militia of former Marxist dictator Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the French government responded by immediately recognizing Sassou-Nguesso's regime - before even he had declared victory.

Apparently, the French were miffed when outsed President Pascal Lissouba, who had defeated Sassou-Nguesso in fair elections in 1992, sought to decrease his country's reliance on France by opening up oil exploration to American companies. Elf, which produces 80 percent of Congo-Brazzaville oil, operations resumed after a brief lull.

The French have also blithely ignored Total's involvement in the Yadana project in Myanmar, where the brutal government has cleared the way for a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline through widespread use of forced labor and eradication of native ethnic groups. A lawsuit against Total and its American partner Unocal, alleging violations of international human rights, is proceeding in U.S. federal courts, but Total, with limited assets in the United States, has let Unocal take the laboring oar (and the spotlight of negative publicity).

Total's only response, aside from routine denials, was to bemoan the arrogance of American courts in seeking to enforce international human rights. The French government and judiciary have expressed no interest in discussing, much less defending, such rights.

Total also thumbed its nose at American concerns about human rights when it signed a $2 billion gas development deal with Iran's government, one of the most repressive and dangerous in the Middle East. This time the French business community did respond - not by expressing embarrassment about cavorting with criminal regimes but by blaring, along with the European Union, the principle that the French will seek a profit where they choose, U.S. views and human rights be damned. The views of the victims of Iran's government, alas, were lost in the dust of major economic blocs colliding.

This sort of behavior, this amoral drive for ever-larger profits, is, of course, not new to giant multinational companies. (Think of ITT in Chile or British Petroleum in Iran.) What is significant is the persistent disregard by Elf and Total for human rights, even as the rest of French society seeks answers about unpleasant past events involving Papon.

Among France's major competitors, even the largest companies are not immune to such pressures. The world's largest multinational company, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, which is larger than Elf and Total combined, this year added respect for human rights to its official corporate policy, after large-scale public displeasure over the company's cooperation with Nigeria's oppressive regime.

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