‘Cablegate’ exposes French business concerns

France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy had considered withdrawing French companies from activity in Burma before he was reined in by advisors, leaked US diplomatic cables claim.

Washington’s ambassador to France,  Craig R. Stapleton, described the French leader as “forward-leaning” in his policies on Burma in an October 2007 cable sent from Paris to the US. Classified as “confidential”, it forms part of the vast disclosure of diplomatic correspondence passed to news agencies earlier this week by whistleblowing website, Wikileaks.

“While Sarkozy seems forward-leaning (he reportedly considered French disinvestment before being dissuaded by advisors), thus far France remains unprepared to implement unilateral sanctions,” the cable said.

France’s business presence in Burma is substantial. It is led by oil giant, Total, which operates the controversial Yadana oil and gas project along with US company Chevron. According to EarthRights International, the project has netted the ruling regime $US5 billion, much of which stays out of the official government budget.

Like Washington’s policy to Burma, the EU sanctions currently in place against the junta that block European partnersips with the Burmese government but do not force the withdrawal of companies there before sanctions were implemented. Thus Total and Chevron have been able to stay, despite reports of widespread human rights abuses related to Yadana.

Moreover, the French government has steadfastly refused to order it to leave Burma. Its comment that Paris was “unprepared” to join the US sanctions programme was set amongst praise for other actions it has taken on Burma, notably in the UN Security Council.

But what lies behind the mixed bag of French policy to Burma goes beyond purely economic reasons, says Matthew Smith, head of ERI’s Burma programme.

“The main reason why Total has not pulled out is mostly to maintain a French presence in a geopolitically valuable part of the world,” he said, adding however that there are concerns that if Total pulled out, the space would be taken by a Burmese or regional company with a worse human rights record.

Vested interests in the French government at the time of the cable may also play a significant role. Five years before Stapleton’s message back to Washington, Total had paid Bernard Kouchner, who later became French foreign minister, €25,000 ($US33,000) to carry out an assessment of the company’s work in Burma.

After the publication of the report, Kouchner told Le Monde that “Nothing allows me to think that the group could have lent a hand to activities contrary to human rights”. Regarding allegations of forced labour, he added that “I am 95 percent sure that the Total people are incapable of that; they are not slaveholders”.

Smith thinks otherwise. “That project has generated multi-billion dollar profits for the regime and there have been thousands upon thousands of instances of human rights abuses directly connected to Total’s presence,” he said. As recently as February, ERI documented two targeted killings close to the Yadana site that were carried out by a Burmese army battalion providing security for Total projects.

“Kouchners’s relationship with Total would colour his assessment of the company’s human rights impact in Burma,” Smith said. He added that he was “deeply critical” of the report, which based “very definitive conclusions about Total’s presence in Burma” on a “very brief trip to the pipeline area”.

He claims that it is “these types of thin assessments that oil companies in Burma have relied upon to convince investors that they are a benefit to Burma rather than an obstacle to human rights protection”.

The cable continued that Sarkozy had “urged French companies to freeze future investments”, a policy that is more in line with the EU sanctions package and Stapleton’s demand that the US “appeal to Sarkozy to redouble French efforts within the EU to push for tough sanctions” on Burma.

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