On 15 February, the "conseil d'Etat" (The French Supreme Court) suspended France's decision to send the decommissioned warship Le Clemenceau to India for scrapping. Immediately, the President Chirac ordered the return of the vessel in France. This means that ship - which left France on 31 December, 2005 for the Alang shipbreaking yard has now to return to a French dock. The petitioners were Comité anti-amiante de Jussieu (anti asbestos committee of Jussieu), Andeva (National Association of defense of asbestos victims) and Greenpeace. The French court's decision is seen as a victory for the French and Indian environmental and labour campaign which enjoyed wide global support.

Besides other arguments, the apex court took note of the European Commission's doubts.

The French State Council's ruling came as a reversal of an earlier directive from a lower French court that allowed the ship to leave for India on 31 December.

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The decommissioned French aircraft-carrier is right now in the Arabian Sea. The 265 m long, 51.2 m wide and 62 m high French warship was named after France's first World War Prime Minster Georges Clemenceau. Since it's commissioning in November 1961, it was central to France's defence force until 1997, when it was decommissioned. The recall of Le Clemenceau comes in the nick of the time, with French President Jacques Chirac's visit of India merely a few days away.

Europe's scrutiny rose sharply in past few weeks

The European Commission had started investigating France's decision amid concerns that the move contravened European Union waste shipment legislation. European Commission officials have visited Paris to detail their concerns to representatives of the French navy and sought further information. If the Commission decides that French government's reasons for taking the ship to India are illegal, it could start legal action against France via the EU's waste shipment legislation. Those rules stipulate that it is forbidden to export EU waste for disposal in third countries to protect the environment of those countries. The French government has been denying that the ship constitutes waste, but the Commission challenged that claim.

While a spokesperson for Europe's Environment Commissary (the EU organisation similar to the Indian Environment Ministry) has indicated that they could not be sure if there was a violation, there were elements of the case that made it look like France was committing a violation. "We must determine precisely if they are really wastes and next if they are hazardous wastes. If that is the case, in principle no country from the European Union can send a boat containing hazardous wastes for dismantling outside," the spokesperson said.

The French State Council's ruling came as a reversal of an earlier directive from a lower French court that allowed the ship to leave for India on 31 December. This time however, ANDEVA and Comité Anti Amiante Jussieu had taken recourse in new legal arguments that had not been used previously. They had been demanding suspension not only of the transfer of the Clemenceau to India, but also the suspension of the contract signed by the French Government with a private Panamean company that resulted in the transfer arrangement with Gujarat authorities.

The groups attacked the central argument of the French Ministry of Defense which has held that the hull of the Clemenceau would enjoy the status of a warship, even though the ship was destined for dismantling following by scrapping. French authorities had been consistently using this qualification to deflect national and international obligations concerning disposal and transport of hazardous wastes that otherwise would have made its transport to India unjustifiable.

Action in New Delhi

Earlier in the week, before the recall ruling from the French Supreme Court, the Clemenceau case also came up for hearing in the Supreme Court of India on 13 February. The Supreme Court was to respond to a report filed with it by its monitoring committee (SCMC) on hazardous wastes. The Dr G Thiyagarajan-led monitoring committee did not provide any conclusive opinion in its final report.

The Supreme Court Bench of Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice H S Kapadia said the SCMC was not a group of experts who could decide on toxic wastes and directed the Ministry of Defence to form a new panel comprising of four to five retired Navy and DRDO experts, members should preferably have worked with the dockyards. They asked the Ministry of Defence to give the names for the panel by February 17, the next date of hearing.

But in a noteworthy development at the hearing on 13 February, the apex court barred demonstration, protests or articles for or against the ship, saying that it amounted to trial by the media. It noted that going against the bar would be viewed as contempt of the Court. "We are shocked to find demonstrations are held and articles written, and if any one is found to be doing so, he should prima facie be held for contempt of court and suitable action be taken against him," said Justice Arijit Pasayat.

The justices also stated that their earlier order restraining the ship from entering India's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) remained unaltered. The court had banned the ship from entering India's Exclusive Economic Zone on 16 January.