Brussels, 28 May 2004
French President Jacques Chirac has suggested making a drastic change to the French constitution, giving environmental issues the same importance as human, economic and social rights.
In an announcement that has lead to an outcry among scientists and politicians alike, Mr Chirac said he wants to enshrine the right of all French people to 'live in an environment which is balanced and respects their health.'
Although most agree with the basic principle of this environmental charter, disagreement has arisen over of an article that states that if an action poses a 'serious and irreversible threat' to the environment, the government is free to act to stop it.
'It is very important that France shows itself to be the conscience of the planet,' explained the French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, in support of Mr Chirac.
Scientists, however, have criticised this article saying that this precautionary principle is too vague and ill-defined and could lead to disastrous drifts for research and scientific development, as well as complicated legal disputes.
Indeed, they fear that enshrining such a principle into the constitution could potentially lead to ordinary citizens bringing legal action if they felt the government was not taking measures to protect the environment against, for example, genetically modified food.
The Justice Minister, Dominique Perben, refuted those allegations, however, stating the article 'does not stop economic research or economic activities.'
'It is time politicians responded to the concerns of our citizens about the protection of the environment. It is not a case of giving up economic and social development, but of making this compatible with preserving the environment.'
Some scientists agree with this idea. Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, for example, stated: 'Science can do things for the good and for ill. It is necessary to be vigilant and reflect on the implication of research. Awareness of the risks that human activities could cause to humanity and nature means we have to adopt a principle of precaution.'
At present the charter is still being debated in parliament and will have to be accepted either through a national referendum of by a vote by both houses of parliament.