The French gas and oil major Total first struck oil near Kirkuk, in Iraq, in 1927, and in July, Total CEO Christophe de Margerie visited the country with French Prime Minister François Fillon and other French business leaders looking to renew commercial ties there. In his La Défense office outside Paris, de Margerie spoke with NEWSWEEK's Tracy McNicoll about France's return to Iraq, Total's interest in Iran, and the company's bad image back home. Excerpts:
You're just back from Iraq, visiting with a French business delegation only two days after U.S. troops left the cities there. Some Americans might be surprised about French ambitions for Iraq.
You think Americans were surprised—or embarrassed? Because to be interested in the development of reserves in Iraq, I mean, they cannot be surprised. We've always been there. And I'm taking a risk in saying this, if we cannot be back in Iraq, where we were born, it means that we have a problem.
Do you think it might play to French companies' advantage that France didn't participate in the war?
No, it is what it is. Today, the issue is not who did what. It's who can do what now and at what speed, because they want it now. Now it's true that some people are saying, 'Ah, they were not there, so why should they be there now? Why should France now have the right to come and discuss with Iraqis?' I say, 'Ask the Iraqis.'
Total has had to hold back on the natural gas in Iran because of U.S. pressure. Now we've seen China moving in where you want to be and Ahmadinejad's reelection.
If you look at supply and demand, we need Iraq's oil, we need Iran's gas. Now it's going to take longer than expected. Even with the great help of the Chinese, it will still take more time than expected to develop reserves in Iran. That will have an impact on the equilibrium between supply and demand.
There was an outcry in France when Total declared record 2008 profits of 14 billion. You've said you want to change Total's terrible image at home. How?
Oil and gas companies have a bad image everywhere, especially in their home countries. The Erika [a tanker that spilled off the French coast in 1999] was a tremendous shock here. On top of this, we came out with historic profits. There is no link between the two, but people think not only are they destroying the planet, but they're making money. And that's not acceptable. They don't know why, but it's not acceptable. But the thing is, we can't change Erika. Maybe we've made mistakes. Certainly we could have managed this in a different way, but I can't go back to the past. It's already 10 years ago. Our 14 billion profit was only last year. This year, it will be lower, but that won't change Total's image. Even if we are doing our best, Erika can happen again. But people shouldn't make stupid links between money and this. Making money is good for the country, if you use it to invest, to build and prepare for the future, to fight global warming, to avoid price volatility through additional investment. By telling them that when we make money, it is good for the future of our industry and the planet, I think we'll solve it. But you don't change the image of the company in a year's time.
The outcry wasn't simply about issues like Erika. You were called on to influence Burma to free Aung San Suu Kyi. It was about Total's responsibilities. You meet with Vladimir Putin. You're treated like a head of state in the Middle East.
You cannot say, I am a player in the industry and I only go where I'm told to go. In Burma, I am bringing gas to Thailand. Bangkok was the world's most polluted city. They switched from oil fuel to gas. Bangkok is clean now. We are proud of being part of this. We will talk more, even if people don't like it because it is easier to go and say nasty things on Total when we don't speak. Today, they are trying to tell us you have no right to speak. They can go to hell. If you want to ask somebody, don't ask Total. Ask the government of Thailand, which buys Burmese gas. Or ask the government of India why they have companies investing in Burma, when we froze investment. Why is South Korea, ally of the United States of America, investing in Burma? Why Total? India is the biggest democracy on earth. And that's what people don't like to hear. Because then it's a little bit too complex. It's better to say Total has to quit Burma. I disagree.