Greenpeace activists on Tuesday blocked the entrance to a refinery in southern France where oil giant Total uses controversial palm oil to produce biofuel.

Environmentalists say palm oil drives deforestation, with vast areas of Southeast Asian rainforest having been logged or set ablaze in recent decades to make way for plantations.

In additional to releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, this has threatened the habitat of orangutans and other endangered species.

About 50 Greenpeace activists, wearing orange, arrived outside Total's biorefinery in La Mede near Marseille at around 6 am (0500GMT).

They placed large two orange containers in front of the entrance and a protester chained themself to each container. The group said each container holds enough supplies for the activists to remain at the site for several days.

Greenpeace activists blocked the entrance to the Total biorefinery in La Mede, near Marseille
Greenpeace activists blocked the entrance to the Total biorefinery in La Mede, near Marseille AFP / Boris HORVAT

Banners read "Deforestation made in France" and French President "Emmanuel Macron complicit".

"The refinery at La Mede is a centre of deforestation imported into France, which imports 550,000 tonnes of palm oil per year, which corresponds to 64 percent of French consumption," Clement Senechal of Greenpeace France told AFP.

When launching the La Mede biorefinery earlier this year Total pledged it would process no more than 300,000 tonnes of palm oil per year -- less than half of the total volume of raw materials needed and that would be certified as being sustainable according to EU standards.

It said the certification ensured there had been no deforestation to produce the oil and would result in at least a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels.

France's constitutional court earlier this month rejected a bid by Total to secure a tax break for using palm oil to create biofuel.

French legislators in 2018 had excluded palm oil from biofuel inputs eligible for tax breaks.