Our interest in using Total as a case study also stems from the fact that its representatives have become particularly vocal. Successive CEOs and various representatives do not hesitate to comment on their activities and even on current political affairs, giving us an insight into their fundamental ideology. In doing so, they inform the public of the ideological means they use to justify, in their own eyes, their authority. They present themselves in the long term as resolutely sovereign.
Surreal video in which TOTAL mocks media observers
We analysed three types of sources:
- Total’s documents and public statements, as well as the publications of its historians and other intellectuals, which allow us to confirm by its own admission a whole series of facts.
- Specific legal documents that, depending on their status, provide evidence on specific matters.
- Critical and incriminating documents making claims to which the corporation’s directors have often responded.
We identified three constants in the corporation’s official discourse.
First constant: the presumption of legality
Whatever the form, Total’s representatives always insist on the legal nature of its operations. Whether dealing with its historical collaboration with the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the consultations that leave Latin American indigenous peoples frustrated, the influence peddling observed in Iraq or Iran in the late 1990s, the devastation of the Niger Delta region or the access to Algerian wealth enabled by odious debts, its rhetoric can be summed up as: we respect the law, we operate within the law, what we do is legal as long as it is not prohibited (or sanctioned), it is permitted. These are the key phrases the group’s representatives use.
We took these claims seriously, so our work was not so much a critique of Total’s actions as an analysis of a system that allows so many actions to seem legal. We then asked ourselves about the very meaning of the phrase ‘it is legal’ in the various contexts in which it is used. We also examined how the corporation itself sometimes helps in drafting the legal frameworks that allow such actions to be considered legal.
Second constant: let bygones be bygones
When a journalist asked former CEO Christophe de Margerie about the suspicious commissions Total paid the Iranian regime in return for the concessions that it was awarded in the 1990s, he responded, ‘It’s good that you are starting to ask questions about dates because we can also talk about the Saint-Barthélemy massacre’ – which took place in 1572.
The firm’s representatives suggest that the historical slate should be wiped clean, perhaps in part to clear their conscience. For them, Total’s collaboration with the Apartheid regime is no longer up for discussion, even if its own documents boast that it has been in South Africa since 1954.
The TNC’s discourse minimises the past to favour only the present or a projected future. However, a firm’s capital, especially when it is colossal, is also its memoire, recording its actions in specific historical contexts. Capital is clearly crucial for any corporation, enabling it to take out loans, build partnerships, raise its share value on the stock market and invest in new projects in order to constantly expand it.
Minimising the past prevents the public from understanding how capital is accumulated – the very capital that now gives the group the means to launch multiple initiatives, reminding us of the saying, ‘the past guarantees the future’.
Third constant: don’t do politics
In issues involving Total in France and abroad, its representatives insist on saying that they do not do politics, then to add, only geopolitics. Together with other private-sector firms of the same magnitude, the corporation manages to shape much of the global industrial and financial order through a series of imperatives making it difficult for states to clearly exercise their sovereignty.
Whether in the chapter on procurement, pricing, diplomacy, lawsuits filed with ad hoc tribunals to ‘settle trade disputes with states’, lobbying and the establishment of power relations in regard to investment plans, everything is done to stifle debate on how liberal globalisation operates.
This is what led the current CEO, Patrick Pouyanné, to say that the left–right divide is obsolete and elections now merely endorse the neoliberal order that his group and several others helped to establish.
Moreover, since Total is active in all phases of the chain of exploration, exploitation, processing and distribution of energy assets, it can often avoid influencing the broader economic context, contenting itself with taking advantage of the stage of the chain favoured by the state of affairs at the time.