On most nights in Paris, the Salle Pleyel concert hall hosts musical stars. But recently it has also become the site of a less exciting annual spectacle — a showdown between environmentalists and shareholders of the French oil company TotalEnergies.
Last month, police sprayed protesters with tear gas as they tried to stage a sit-in at an annual investor meeting. Minor shareholders of Total managed to get in after last year’s lockout, but under a barrage of chants. “I don’t care,” growled one shareholder in response to the protesters’ invective about the need to save the planet.
Watching the exchange, the two camps seem more at odds than ever. To see such a short decline in climate concerns is startling. But the protesters also know what they are clicking on. Clips of such meetings are doing well on social media – and the face-off followed disruptions at other shareholder meetings, including those of Shell and BP in Britain.
“We are facing two parties that are not interested in dialogue,” says Jean-Michel Gauthier, a professor at the HEC business school who worked at Total two decades ago.
“Activists are doing their part, sounding the alarm and saying [the energy transition] it must be accelerated,” Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne told reporters.
This warmth towards environmental activists contrasts with the government’s attitude towards protesters who took part in recent mass protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms.
But it also underscores the growing pressure on the fossil fuel industry. Companies like Total are having an increasingly difficult time justifying the pace of their green transitions.
Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné is famously blunt. He tries to digest how his ultra-rational vision of a world still dependent on oil, which will take time to turn to cleaner energy, is not shared by the campaigners.
He faithfully formed in the morning at the AGM and in a speech complained about the “wailing accusations of greenwashing”. Outside, some protesters took direct aim at him, chanting “Pouyanné, chicken”.
Total’s investments in wind and solar farms and other new forms of energy are not bullshit. This year, the company has increased its renewable energy investment budget to $5 billion of total capital spending of $16 billion to $18 billion, compared to $4 billion in 2022. But that position has drawn less enthusiasm from investors than others in the US. who held tighter to their oil and gas roots while not really moving the public opinion indicator.
“From a stock perspective, Total is not trading at the level of its US counterparts and yet it is still being thrown eggs and tomatoes on the street,” says Gauthier.
The group begins to strike back. In one ongoing case, Total sued Greenpeace in France for a symbolic €1 in damages over a report on its emissions that the company said was misleading.
Last month, French news outlet La Lettre A got its hands on an internal guide that Total has created for its employees, advising them on how to survive the parties. The company says the document was intended to help employees with responses to regular controversies.
These include its $10 billion Lake Albert oil project and an associated pipeline that will run through Uganda and Tanzania — a red line for those advocating an end to new oil development and a recurring trigger for protests.
“It’s clear that businesses cannot get off fossil fuels overnight. But when it comes to starting new projects, it’s extremely simple,” says Anne-Fleur Goll, a 26-year-old activist who also works in climate consulting at Deloitte.
Goll proved herself last year when she helped organize an open letter to Total from more than 800 students and graduates, all of whom said they would never work for the company because of the Ugandan pipeline. He feels their response to the issue has been “defensive and condescending” as always.
Next year, it seems inevitable that television cameras will line up at dawn outside the shareholders’ meeting of Total and other oil groups. In the meantime, though, a little more conversation wouldn’t go amiss.