French court confirms national GM maize ban

Issue of national, EU, competence over GM crop approvals passed to the European Court

France's highest constitutional court today asked the European Court of Justice to rule on whether Paris respected EU law when it authorised the sale of three strains of genetically modified maize last year.

The Council of State also ruled that a ban on the sale of the three disputed GM-products ordered by the government in September would stay in place until the European Court delivers its verdict.. Most experts argue that this process is likely to take at least a year.

The French court wants EU judges to clarify whether national bodies or the EU institutions have the ultimate authority to approve the sale of new GM products. They will also need to decide whether France respected the "precautionary principle" - the idea that products should not be approved for sale if there is the slightest doubt about their safety - when it authorised the sale of the three varieties of GM-maize, which were developed by Swiss biotech firm Novartis.

The Council of State announced the September embargo following a complaint from environmental campaigners, Greenpeace. The group argued that the French government had failed to respect the precautionary principle when it gave the green light to the Novartis maize. Today's ruling follows efforts by government lawyers to convince the court to reverse its earlier decision.

Greenpeace said the announcement showed the validity of its original complaint. "If the Council of State had wanted to overturn our case they would have done it today. The fact that they have referred it to the Court of Justice shows that they feel there are questions to be answered," Bruno Rebelle of Greenpeace France told ENDS Daily. "This will really take the debate over who is competent to approve GMO products to the European level," he added.

Novartis reacted gloomily to the news. "This is a purely legal argument which has nothing to do with our products or the quality of our safety assessments," Willy De Greff, head of regulatory and government affairs at Novartis Seeds told ENDS Daily.

The company tried to put a brave face on the fact that one of the largest European markets for its GM products will be closed to it next year. "These varieties have been sold in France and Spain and the ruling only applies to France," said Mr De Greff.

The European Commission gave a cautious welcome to the news. One senior official argued that a ruling from the European Court could well shed some much needed light on just how the EU's 'deliberate release' directive (90/220) - which sets out the authorisation procedures for GM products - should be applied.

Follow Up:
French Council of State, tel: +33 1 40 20 82 71; Greenpeace France, tel: +33 1 53 43 85 85; Novartis Seeds, tel: +43 61 697 2832.

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