President signals U-turn for French asbestos ship

15th February 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 15, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday ordered the asbestos-lined warship Clemenceau back home after France's highest court blocked its transfer to India for scrapping.

PARIS, Feb 15, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday ordered the asbestos-lined warship Clemenceau back home after France's highest court blocked its transfer to India for scrapping.

The French climbdown will be seen as a major victory for environmentalists, who fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the ship from being sent to India, where they say it would have posed a serious environmental and health hazard.

Accused of exporting its pollution to the developing world, the French government has been sorely embarrassed by the warship debacle, which threatened to overshadow Chirac's upcoming state visit to India.

"Given the situation, the president of the republic has decided to repatriate the ship to France," Chirac's office said on Wednesday.

The former pride of the French navy, the decommissioned ship has been marooned in the northern Indian Ocean for several weeks, awaiting a decision by India's Supreme court on allowing it into the country.

France's State Council cut short the debate on Wednesday with a fast-track ruling ordering the transfer to be suspended, in response to complaints by Greenpeace and three anti-asbestos groups.

The State Council's decision will take effect immediately, while the case goes back to a Paris administrative court for a detailed legal ruling which could take up to six months.

Greenpeace hailed the decision, saying it was "satisfied" the transfer had been called off despite "the obstacles to truth and transparency in this case".

Paris had been under mounting pressure at home to bring back the ship, with the Socialist opposition denouncing the affair as a "fiasco" and part of the press slamming the government for what it called incompetence.

Chirac ordered the ship to be brought back to French waters "to wait in full security conditions until a definitive solution is found for its decontamination," his office said.

"France must set the example and act with the greatest transparency" when disposing of used ships, Chirac said, calling for Europe to build up its own dismantling capabilities.

He said a Europe-wide effort to set international norms for disposing of used ships abroad should include "respect for labour laws, workers' health and the environment".

Chirac also called for a counter-expertise to assess the exact amount of asbestos still left inside the decommissioned ship -- the figure quoted by environmentalists is 10 times that given by the government.

The French defence ministry said the ship still contains 46 tonnes of asbestos, which it says cannot be removed without dismantling it entirely.

But Greenpeace quoted two expert reports as estimating that there are 500 to 1,000 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated materials on board.

India's Supreme Court had called on Monday for a new evaluation of its exact contents before issuing a final ruling on allowing it into the country.

It is to decide whether allowing the Clemenceau to be scrapped in India conforms with the 1989 Basel Convention on dangerous waste and with Indian environmental laws.

A magistrate who advises the State Council on Monday recommended that it be ordered back home in view of doubts over how much asbestos is on board.

He also said the stripped-down vessel should now be considered as waste, rather than as a warship, and therefore fell under the Basel Convention.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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