Chirac image sinks lower over warship debacle

16th February 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 16, 2006 (AFP) - France's political opposition and media on Thursday called the debacle over the asbestos-lined warship Clemenceau a blow for France and a personal failure for President Jacques Chirac.

PARIS, Feb 16, 2006 (AFP) - France's political opposition and media on Thursday called the debacle over the asbestos-lined warship Clemenceau a blow for France and a personal failure for President Jacques Chirac.

Socialist Party leader François Hollande said the climb down was a "bitter setback" for Chirac, who was forced to order the battleship home after France's highest court called off its transfer to an Indian ship breaking yard over pollution fears.

Calling the government's handling of the affair "improvised and rash", Hollande said on French radio that the U-turn "would be laughable were it not so sad for our country."

The Socialists have demanded a full inquiry and called for Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie to face parliament over the matter.

Hailed by environmentalists, the outcome has not met with universal approval, with protests and hunger strikes planned by ship breaking workers in India's northwestern Gujarat who say the decision will devastate their industry.

But Greenpeace and anti-asbestos campaigners in France and India have hailed it as a major victory, after months of legal wrangling over the health and pollution risks of sending the retired warship to India.

For Chirac, who has made frequent international appeals for the defence of the environment, to be seen as exporting France's pollution to the developing world has been particularly embarrassing.

The case had threatened to overshadow am upcoming state visit to India by the president and several dozen French politicians and business leaders.

"Fifteen months from the end of his mandate, Chirac's image sinks in the Indian Ocean," wrote the left-wing newspaper Libération in an editorial.

"For someone who spends his time lecturing the rest of the planet on the environment ... this is a real ecological boomerang," it said.

Libération and Le Parisien, as well as the conservative Le Figaro, predicted that the affair risked burying Alliot-Marie's chances of running for Chirac's succession in next year's presidential election.

Alliot-Marie insists the government acted responsibly, stripping out as much of the ship's asbestos as possible before sending it abroad — and has pointed out that it inherited the ship from the previous Socialist administration.

But environmental campaigners disputed the official assessment of the amount of the cancer-causing material still inside the ship, and accused the government of a lack of transparency.

The Clemenceau is now to be brought home for a thorough analysis of the asbestos remaining in its hull, and kept in French waters until a permanent solution is found for its decontamination.

Meanwhile uncertainty still hung over the ship's future.

The boat's journey home, via the cape of Good Hope in South Africa to the northwestern French port of Brest, is set to take around three months.

However the mayor of Brest warned that his city did not want the hull to become a permanent eyesore.

François Cuillandre told AFP he refused to see "the wreck of the Clemenceau rotting away for ever in a corner of the Brest harbour", saying it would be "unacceptable and scandalous" for the ship to stay five years.

"I expect the state — the owner of this ship — to tell me what the plans are for its future," he said.

The Clemenceau case has thrown up a wider debate on how to deal with retired warships, as Europe has no shipyard capable of disposing of large hulls.

"It is not just the Clemenceau and it is not just France," Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said on French television Thursday, arguing that the problem was "a question of public health, of labour laws and international laws on the environment".

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

 

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