- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

PARIS — French President Jacques Chirac yesterday ordered the asbestos-lined warship Clemenceau back home from the Indian Ocean, ending a months-long debacle that has embarrassed the government.

The outcome marks a major victory for environmentalists, who argued that sending the ship to India for breaking posed a serious environmental and health hazard.

Mr. Chirac announced the move minutes after France’s highest court, the State Council, ordered the ship’s transfer stopped in response to legal action by Greenpeace and three anti-asbestos groups.

The warship debacle threatened to overshadow Mr. Chirac’s state visit to India that begins Sunday.

Most seagoing ships end their service at shipyards in India, Bangladesh, China and Pakistan, where activists say they are cut up by unprotected workers, taking a grim toll on human health and the environment.

The company that was set to dismantle the Clemenceau in Gujarat state in western India said the French decision was a “big blow” and could cost thousands of jobs for the Indian ship-breaking industry.

Paris also had been under mounting pressure at home to bring back the warship, with the Socialist opposition denouncing the affair as a “fiasco” and part of the press accusing the government of incompetence.

The former pride of the French navy was blocked for 10 days from crossing the Suez Canal, which links the Mediterranean and the Red seas, when Egyptian officials expressed pollution fears.

The hull, which was being towed under French navy escort, then was ordered to stay out of Indian territorial waters until the Indian Supreme Court decided whether to allow it into the country. That court has not ruled in the case.

A high-profile campaign by activists drew the ship to the attention of the Egyptian and Indian authorities.

Environmentalists argued that Indian shipyard workers lacked protection from the risks of working with cancer-causing asbestos, which is banned on French soil.

Although stripped of part of its asbestos lining, the ship still contains 45 tons, according to the government, or 500 to 1,000 tons, according to environmentalists.

The ship will be towed back to France starting “in the coming hours or days,” Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said.

It will travel via the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa, to the military port of Brest in northwestern France. The journey will take three months.

Mr. Chirac said the ship would wait in French waters “in full security conditions until a definitive solution is found for its decontamination.”

Greenpeace hailed the return of the battleship as an important victory.

“We had warned the government from the start that it was violating European law and that a superficial asbestos decontamination was not good enough,” said Yannick Jadot, Greenpeace France campaign director.

The European Commission, which had sought clarifications from Paris over the ship, also said France had made “a wise decision.”

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