France has had a busy political week. French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled his new cabinet team following a third reshuffle of his Government since he took office back in May 2017. This included the appointment of Ms. Emmanuelle Wargon as Deputy Environment Minister.
Ms. Wargon – among her many other qualifications – is the former Director of Public Affairs at Danone, France’s leading Food company. During her time at Danone, Ms Wargon spoke about the importance and benefits of Palm Oil for consumers in France and across Europe.
Sadly, this one statement – which is based on sound scientific understanding and a solid evidential base – has drawn the ire of French opponents of Palm Oil. Some environmental NGOs, and anti-Palm Oil politicians have criticized the appointment of Ms Wargon, and engaged in a campaign to pressure her to recant her balanced view on Palm Oil. Corinne Lepage – the former Member of European Parliament and long-time anti-Palm Oil campaigner – has led the protests.
Instead of defending the new Minister’s well-established scientific and industrial credentials, French Government Spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux publicly stated that the “fight against Palm Oil will be the roadmap” for Ms Wargon. The statement, escalating significantly the controversy, was unnecessary and undignified.
This statement by the French Spokesperson also comes at an odd time, following France’s recent position that it was against a ban on Palm Oil biofuels as recently as June 2018, during the EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) negotiations.
There is a question as to whether Mr Griveaux’s statement means a full-throated change of policy towards Palm Oil in France.
But first, a key question is why was the French Government previously supportive of Palm Oil?
One key reason is trade. Let’s remind Mr. Griveaux about the mutual beneficial trading relationship between Malaysia and France:
According to a report by the economic consultancy Copenhagen Economics, French exports to Palm Oil producing countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia) represents 6 billion EUR of goods & services every year.
This includes more than 3 billion EUR of French exports of aircraft and aerospace (including Airbus and Rafale), and over 150m EUR of food & wine products exported to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. Pharmaceuticals, electronics and automobiles are also significant French exports to the top three Palm Oil producing countries. All of these exports create jobs, and sustain economic growth in France. Just like Palm Oil creates jobs and sustains economic growth in South-East Asia. The trade is mutually beneficial.
There is a historical element to this issue. In 2012, the French Senate attempted (and failed) to impose a ‘Nutella Tax’ on Palm Oil. Since then, successive French Governments have stated that they were against any discrimination against Palm Oil. Former Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault announced in 2013 that France would not discriminate against Palm Oil imports and Deputy Defence Minister Florence Parly confirmed this in 2018. France opposed the planned EU ban on Palm Oil biofuels as recently as July this year.
The Malaysian Government has repeatedly stated that it would not tolerate any discriminatory actions against Palm Oil. Indonesia as well. Indonesian President Joko Widodo informed the EU (and France) not to discriminate against Palm Oil. Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla confirmed that the Indonesian Government would retaliate against any anti-Palm Oil actions in Europe, highlighting that Indonesia’s two biggest airlines were both buyers of aircraft from France-based aeronautical company Airbus and that they might turn to Airbus’s competitor.
Indonesian Trade Minister Enggartiasto Lukita told the media that if France and the EU would denigrate Palm Oil, then Indonesia should “limit wine imports from France”.
Does the statement from Mr Girveaux mean a radical change of French policy on Palm Oil, and potentially a return to the bad old days? Or will others in the Government instead prevail and choose the continued strong trade and diplomatic relationship with ASEAN countries? It is to be hoped that it is the latter, and that the mutual respect for each other’s export products (including Palm Oil) can continue.