By Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS (Reuters) - France's biggest agriculture union on Wednesday told its farmers to suspend a blockade of refineries and fuel depots that had entered its third day over palm oil imports and unfair competition, a union official said.
The protests that hit 18 sites in France were triggered by France's decision to allow oil and gas major Total (PA:TOTF) to use imported palm oil at a biofuel plant, a cheaper alternative to biodiesel made from locally produced oilseed crops.
The palm oil authorisation has soured already-fragile relations between the European Union's biggest farm sector and the government of President Emmanuel Macron.
Negotiations between the FNSEA union that called the protest and French Agriculture Minister Stephane Travert to resolve the latest dispute progressed on Wednesday after he sent the union a draft letter in the morning responding to some of their demands.
"We have made breakthroughs and many meetings are lined up (with the minister). We're going to ask our members to suspend with immediate effect their blockade of the different sites," Jeremy Decerle, leader of the FNSEA's youth-wing, told reporters.
Decerle was flanked by FNSEA chief Christiane Lambert who earlier said there had been breakthroughs on some points but not on others during an overnight meeting Travert.
The FNSEA had called for the blockades to be maintained early on Wednesday after the talks ended, saying they "did not get enough".
Lambert, who said unions wanted assurances that France would defend its farmers' interests more robustly in Brussels, signalled protests could resume if talks with the government did not yield enough.
"We're calling a suspension because we're talking about issues that can't be resolved in the blink of an eye," she told the news conference.
"If we don't have meetings in the coming weeks over the points that need resolving, we will come back."
Total committed to use less than 300,000 tonnes of crude palm oil per year at its La Mede biofuel refinery out of a total processing capacity of 650,000 tonnes, and to use 50,000 tonnes of locally grown rapeseed.
Lambert called on Total to use more rapeseed.
Macron was due to meet Total Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne later this week, FNSEA's second deputy-chairman Henri Bies-Pere said after the news conference.
Junior ecology minister Sebastien Lecornu also confirmed France would propose a decision be taken at EU level to cap and progressively cut palm oil imports, Lambert said.
Total said on Tuesday 3.5 percent of its petrol stations in France had run out of fuel on the second day of the blockade disrupted distribution.