Chirac orders asbestos warship back to France
by Helene Fontanaud, ABC News (Reuters)
15 February 2006 (Paris) –
President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday ordered back an asbestos-laden French warship bound for an Indian scrapyard, just days before a state visit to India overshadowed by an embarrassing legal wrangle over the vessel.
Chirac ordered the retired aircraft carrier Clemenceau back to France pending a final decision on how to dispose of the 27,000-tonne ship.
He also demanded a fresh audit of the amount of deadly asbestos on board after a 30-tonne discrepancy emerged between the amount of asbestos said taken off the Clemenceau and the amount weighed by disposal teams.
"The president has decided to put this ship in French waters, on a position of standby which offers all security guarantees, until a definitive solution for its dismantling is found," Chirac's official Elysee Palace said in a statement.
India's top court has already banned the Clemenceau from entering the country's territorial waters pending a final decision on whether the asbestos represents a health hazard to Indian scrapyard workers.
French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said the Clemenceau would return to France via the Cape of Good Hope and the passage would take about three months. It has been in a waiting zone off India's territorial water since mid-January.
The ship's outward passage was delayed when Egypt sought assurances that it did not pose an environmental threat before allowing it to pass through the Suez Canal.
"Regarding the cost the return, that will be taken on by the state and should be around 1 million euros," Alliot-Marie told a news conference broadcast on national television, adding that the ship would head to the port of Brest in western France.
The costly decision to bring back the Clemenceau gave ammunition to France's opposition parties to attack the conservative government which is pursuing a cost-cutting budgetary policy to tackle the state's mounting debts.
"France's image is damaged," Rudy Salles, a deputy with the centrist Union of French Democracy party, said in a statement denouncing "an unacceptable loss of time, prestige and money."
Once the pride of the French navy but now dubbed the "Farcical Flagship" by critics, the Clemenceau affair had cast a shadow over Chirac's state visit to India on Sunday.
The French leader will be accompanied by a host of top business executives during the trip, determined to press French claims to lucrative contracts for Airbus passenger jets, military hardware and possibly civilian nuclear know-how.
Relations between France and India have also been strained in recent weeks by Paris's resistance to a bid by Mittal Steel, owned by Indian-born billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, to buy steelmaker Arcelor, which employs 28,500 people in France.
Chirac's decision came after France's top administrative court ruled the Clemenceau's transfer to a breaker's yard in the western Indian state of Gujarat should be suspended.
The Council of State said the ship was hazardous waste and not military hardware and so had been exported in breach of international rules.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who on Tuesday expressed regret over the two-year saga surrounding the Clemenceau's fate, said a ministerial committee would discuss rules for the future disposal of civilian and military vessels.
Environment group Greenpeace, which led the fight to prevent Clemenceau from entering India, welcomed the decision.
"President Chirac's decision shows how governments, when confronted with the truth and pressurized by public opinion, take corrective action," it said in a statement issued from the southern Indian city of Bangalore.
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