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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March, 2005, 23:51 GMT
French flair wins Total new friends
By Caroline Duffield
BBC World Service business reporter

Total petrol station in the UK
Total is currently the world's fourth biggest oil company

The energy giant Total is "at the top of the class" when it comes to oil and gas production growth, according to Jim Washer, editor of International Petroleum Finance.

Investors in the company have been richly rewarded over the past five years with a 70% leap in its share price, even though the Total has also been hit by its share of controversy.

"It's increasing the amount of oil and gas it's producing year-on-year and that - for investors - offers the kind of capital appreciation they're looking for," says Mr Washer.

Total itself has recently benefited from soaring oil prices, while in some parts of the world it has found its prospects lifted by its lack of links with the United States.

Burma critics

Total acquired Fina, and then Elf - which was previously the subject of a corruption scandal - at the end of the 1990s.

In 1999, the newly named TotalFinaElf was slated over the shipwrecked oil tanker, the Erika.

We may not have been very successful in our communications - much of the criticism has been grossly unfair.
Charles Bowen, Total corporate manager of environment

She sank off France's Brittany coastline, causing huge environmental damage.

Total has also been criticised over its activities in Burma, where it denies claims it has benefited from forced labour.

The company points to its ethical charter, which commits it to human rights.

'Communicating better'

Last year, French police questioned several current and former executives, searching offices at Total's Paris headquarters.

That was part of an ongoing investigation into bribery involving a number of French businesses, although the inquiry did not target Total itself.

A protestor against Total
Total has come in for criticism both at home and abroad

Charles Bowen, Total's corporate manager of environment, admits the company has - at times - got things wrong.

"The case of the Erika did us a lot of harm. Many French were very unhappy about that." he says.

"More generally, we may not have been very successful in our communications. Much of the criticism has been grossly unfair. I think we are winning now. We are probably communicating better."

French card

So how is the company growing?

One advantage is by being French. With no assets in the US, Total ignores Congress's ban on doing business with countries such as Iran.

But is being perceived as a French oil company an advantage in Arab or African countries?

"The oil business is a political business. When you can play the French card, you play the French card." says Mr Bowen diplomatically.

"Be realistic, the vast majority of reserves in the world are in the Middle East. These are not particularly open or easy to get to places, but clearly they are areas we would like to develop."

Meanwhile, the possibility of continued growth raises other questions for Total.

It has major projects in 130 countries, including Venezuela, Iran and Angola.

Being quick on your feet can a serious advantage in the oil business, and at number four in the world, Total is able to move faster than Exxon Mobil, BP or Shell, some analysts say.

But by the same token, Total faces the risk that an ambition to grow might one day slow it down.

Charles Bowen, Total corporate manager
"The oil business is a political business."


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