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Clemenceau's recall: a triumph for activists

The French court's decision was a triumph for environmental pressure groups, led by Greenpeace, reports Nabanita Sircar.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2006 19:48 IST

France's highest court has ordered Le Clemenceau, the decommissioned aircraft carrier, to stay out of Indian waters, pending a suit by environmental campaigners.

The court decision forced President Chirac 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.

Earlier an Indian court had 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. It 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 French court decision at a sensitive time as Chirac, who sees himself as a environmental champion, is due in India on a state visit on Sunday.

The Elysée Palace has 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.

"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, said: "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."

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.

Greenpeace, which brought suits in India and France said the former aircraft carrier should have been decontaminated before leaving Toulon. They argued that the transfer of the vessel breached the Basel Convention.

Chirac's decision was welcomed by the Europen Union.