New dawn for French environmental policy

Employment and transparency placed at heart, plans overshadowed by nuclear waste row

French environment minister Dominique Voynet today placed employment and democratisation at the heart of her policies. In her first major policy statement since taking office five weeks ago, she promised a major revision of planning law, more environmental taxes and greater transparency in decision making.

Her presentation was overshadowed by an escalating public row over radioactive discharges from the La Hague nuclear waste reprocessing plant in Normandy. Yesterday the ministry announced restrictions on fishing and swimming around the plant's waste outfall, following publication of an analysis of radioactive contamination in water and sediment in the area by two German laboratories.

Today, Ms Voynet played down the measure's significance in the face of questions over possible links between the discharge and a cluster of childhood leukaemias in the area. The restriction was taken as a precaution, she said, "to prevent people from putting their heads into the discharge pipe" while waiting for confirmation of the German analyses by an official French laboratory. It was not meant to block access to the whole areas, she stressed.

Turning away from the La Hague question, Ms Voynet promised strengthened action in two controversial areas of national environmental policy making. On waste policy, the deadline of 2002 by which only "ultimate" or treated waste is supposed to be landfilled will be maintained, she said. Moreover, priority will be given to recycling over incineration, one benefit of which could be the creation of 20,000 jobs. Ms Voynet's restatement and clarification follows growing scepticism over the practicality of the 2002 deadline (ENDS Daily 25 March).

On energy policy, the minister declared a personal commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. She described current energy policies as "in crisis" and put forward several remedies. Chief amongst these was an increase in taxes on motor fuels, which Ms Voynet said could be introduced as part of a package to reduce taxation on employment. She also looked forward to an eventual tax on carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption.

A central theme in today's statement was boosting jobs and ensuring their long-term sustainability in line with the government's general pledge to reduce unemployment. Another theme was increased transparency. Ms Voynet promised a review of the archaic public inquiry system. She pledged a reform of the regulation of nuclear and other major risks in order to separate the regulated from the regulators.

She further pledged to "reinforce" the role of NGOs in decision-making, beginning with a consultation exercise this autumn.

In other areas of policy, Ms Voynet confirmed that financial support for intensive animal rearing was being frozen in areas with serious nitrate pollution. She stressed her commitment to meeting the terms of any international laws signed by France, and promised swift action to comply fully with the EU habitats directive.

Follow Up:
French environment ministry, tel: +33 1 42 19 20 21.

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