Toxic Trade News / 16 February 2006
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Humiliation for France as court sinks toxic ship's passage to India
by Charles Bremner, The Times Online (UK)
  Michéle Alliot-Marie has come under fire over her handling of the Clemenceau affair  
16 February 2006 (Paris) – France suffered a humiliating blow to its prestige yesterday when President Chirac was forced to order the return of the former flagship of the Gallic navy from the Arabian Sea after environmentalists scuppered its proposed break-up in an Indian scrapyard.

The President commanded the the U-turn by Le Clemenceau, the decommissioned aircraft carrier, after France’s highest court ordered her to stay out of Indian waters, pending a suit by environmental campaigners.

An Indian court had already banned the 27,000-tonne warship from entering port while deciding whether her asbestos was a hazard to shipyard workers.

The decision was a triumph for environmental pressure groups, led by Greenpeace, which have led a vocal campaign against the practice of industrialised nations to export waste to South-East Asia for disposal.

Greenpeace claimed Le Clemenceau, the pride of France from the days of the late President de Gaulle until the 1990s, was laden with asbestos, which would not be properly disposed of in India.

The incident has dealt a further blow to French pride at a time when the nation feels its international influence has become greatly diminished. The timing could not have been worse, since M Chirac, who casts himself as a environmental champion, is due in India on a state visit on Sunday.

Seeking to limit the damage, the Elysée Palace ordered a study to determine how much asbestos was left in the hulk. Environmentalists said that up to 1,000 tonnes remained in Le Clemenceau, while the Defence Ministry says that there are only 45 tonnes.

Ministers squabbled last night over who was to blame for a debacle which has included the apparent disappearance of 48 tonnes of asbestos during decontamination in the port of Toulon.

It was not clear what would be the fate of a stripped-down hulk that has has become the butt of comedians and cartoonists as she has twice wandered the high seas in search of a breakers’ yard. Experts expected her to be moored offshore.

“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,” the Elysée said.

The saga of hull Q790, as she is officially called, was pitiful and shameful, Le Monde said. “The circles in the water performed off India by the Clemenceau give a disastrous image of the French Navy and France.”

The opposition Socialist party called the Clemenceau affair grotesque. Laurent Fabius, a senior Socialist, said: “The Government cannot give ecology lessons to the whole world and have our toxic ships dealt with by other countries.”

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, thundered: “Those who preferred to celebrate the defeat at Trafalgar rather than (Napoleon’s) victory at Austerlitz are responsible for this indescribable outrage to the image of the French Navy and France.”

Greenpeace and other campaigners who had opposed what they saw as the illegal disposal of hazardous waste claimed victory as the hulk of the 48-year-old carrier was towed back towards France, which she left in December. It was uncertain whether she would be allowed through the Suez Canal, which blocked her passage for ten days last month.

The Clemenceau’s aborted voyage to the breakers’ yard at Alang, in Gujarat, was her second odyssey since she was decommissioned in 1997 and found to be riddled with asbestos. In 2003, the Government was forced to recover the Clemenceau from the eastern Mediterranean after a Spanish company breached a contract to dismantle her in Spain and towed her towards a yard in Turkey.

The partial decontamination in Toulon ran into trouble and the Defence Ministry sacked the company that was performing the operation.

Michele Alliot-Marie, the Defence Minister, this week sued the company over the missing 48 tonnes while she came under fire for mishandling the affair. The final straw for the Ministry was a finding on Tuesday by the judicial adviser to the Court of State, the highest legal body. He recommended that the stripped-down vessel be considered as waste rather than as a warship, and therefore subject to the 1989 Basel Convention on dangerous waste.

The court yesterday ordered the Clemenceau to wait until it rules on this. It also ordered the Government to pay about £10,000 in costs and damages to the four environmental associations who applied for the emergency ruling.

Mme Alliot-Marie, a protege of M Chirac, complained that blame for the Indian fiasco lay with Thierry Breton, the Finance Minister, because his officials had set the financial terms for the decontamination.

“There is no solution for dismantling thousands of warships now rusting in certain places in the world, which is extremely harmful to the environment,” she said. “There are no dismantling yards in Europe, none in the United States.”

Greenpeace, which brought suits in India and France and staged protests against Le Clemenceau at the Suez Canal, said: “If Michele Alliot-Marie believes that there are no dismantling sites, then she should build some.”

The environmental campaigners said that the former aircraft carrier should have been decontaminated before leaving Toulon. They argued that the transfer of the vessel breached the Basel Convention.

M Chirac’s decision was welcomed by the Europen Union. But Girish Luthra, chairman of Gujarat Enviro Protection and Infrastructure, whose company was due to remove the toxic materials from the vessel, said the decision would cost India thousands of jobs. “It’s a big blow for the industry,” he said.

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