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France Under Pressure To Bring Home Asbestos Warship

If only asbestos faded away like empires do.
by Emma Charlton
Paris, France (AFP) Feb 14, 2006
France faced mounting pressure on Tuesday to bring home an asbestos-lined warship sent to India for scrapping, with the issue set to dominate President Jacques Chirac's upcoming visit to the country.

The Clemenceau aircraft carrier has become a major source of embarrassment for the French government, which stands accused by environmentalists and the opposition of exporting its pollution to the developing world.

Chirac's spokesman said on Tuesday the president had "taken direct hold" of the case, after India's Supreme Court postponed for a second time a decision on allowing the ship into the country's territorial waters.

The former pride of the French navy, the decommissioned ship is currently marooned in the north Indian Ocean, and would take two weeks to be towed to Indian waters.

Its fate hinges on two court rulings expected this week -- one in India, the other in France -- on whether it should be treated as dangerous waste and towed back to France.

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin promised on Tuesday that France would meet its legal obligations concerning the ship, but the debacle is set to loom large during a weekend visit to India by Chirac and a high-level delegation including Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

Environmental activists in France and India have fought tooth-and-nail to prevent the ship from being dismantled in India, saying Indian shipyard workers lack proper protection for working with cancer-causing asbestos.

The campaigners have accused the French government of putting pressure on New Delhi to accept the contaminated vessel.

In France, more than 100 personalities -- lawmakers, scientists, activists and artists -- have written to Chirac, asking him to bring the Clemenceau back to France to "avoid a human and environmental catastrophe".

"The shame of the 'Clem'" ran the title of an editorial in Tuesday's Le Monde newspaper, which deplored the "disastrous image" the case was giving of France and its navy.

"India doesn't want France's toxic bomb" headlined the France Soir daily, while the left-wing Liberation slammed Paris' handling of the case as "incompetent" and "opaque".

The Socialist opposition has called the affair a fiasco, while Green Party Senator Dominique Voynet charged on French radio Tuesday that "either the defence minister is lying ... or she is being lied to" about the amount of asbestos left on board.

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

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

India's Supreme Court called on Monday for a new evaluation of the ship's 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.

France's highest court, the State Council, is also to rule later this week on whether to suspend the ship's transfer to India.

A top magistrate who advises the court recommended on Monday that it be ordered back to France, in view of the 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.

A row broke out on Tuesday over the amount of absestos that was stripped from the vessel before it left the Mediterranean port of Toulon on December 31.

The French defence ministry ordered a probe after finding that it could not locate 30 out of 115 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated material which it says the French company Technopure claimed to have removed.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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