Total in Iraq

There has been much talk about the TotalFinaElf (TFE, recently renamed Total) bid to develop two of Iraq’s largest oil fields. The project has attracted a great deal of attention because the French “super major” is the highest profile player to have negotiated preliminary agreements with Iraq to develop its fields while the country was under sanctions. In light of the prize involved, there was a great deal of suspicion that France’s foreign policy in Iraq was dictated by its oil interests. In fact, however, while TFE has staked a large part of the company’s future in Iraq, the company has not received undue diplomatic support from the French government. On the one hand, the French government had wider interests in Iraq than simply supporting oil sides. On the other hand, TFE has been careful not to tie its interest too closely to the French government’s, realizing some time ago that its independence from the government would be critical for securing a role for a French oil company in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Total’s Experience in Iraq

There are several stories to tell in tracing the history of TotalFinaElf (TFE) in Iraq. TFE is the result of a merger in 2000 of Elf and TotalFina (itself the result of a merger a year earlier with the Belgian PetroFina). The original Total was practically born in Iraq. The company was founded in 1924 by a syndicate of French industrialists and financiers and entered the business of pumping oil by taking over the French government’s 23.8% share in Iraq Petroleum (IPC—then called Turkish Petroleum). This later entitled it to share in the output of the generous Kirkuk field, discovered by IPC in 1927. In 1930, the French government took up a 25% interest in Total and later increased this to 34%, but the company retained its managerial independence. After World War II, the company developed oil in Basra (and was active in Qatar, Algeria and Iran). Total lost its interests in Iraq during the nationalization of the oil industry, but returned in May 1991 to hold discussions with the Iraqi oil ministry to develop the giant oil field Bin ‘Omar following the lifting of UN sanctions.

Elf Aquitaine was a national oil company created by General de Gaulle in 1965. Elf was intended to secure access to oil for the French state, but it also became a foreign policy tool, covertly maintaining the French presence in Africa through intelligence gathering, corruption and close association to the intelligence services. It was also one of the main sources of financing for the Gaulliste movement. In time, corruption scandals and covert party financing also involved the Socialist party. Attempts were made to clean up the company following its privatization in 1994, but the nebula of networks that bound the company to the intelligence services and to the two main political parties resisted reform. Although a variety of scandals involving Elf have littered the front pages of French papers over the last few years, none have even mentioned Iraq. There has been no evidence of dealings similar to those in Africa though the company began talks in 1991 with the Iraqi oil ministry to develop Majnoon, an oil field in Southern Iraq.