Clemen-soap: a shipbreaking saga

After an illustrious history, the final days of the ‘Clemenceau’ aircraft carrier have become mired in controversy. The French navy wanted the vessel to go for breaking in India, but environmentalists had other ideas …

When the French navy replaced its fifty-year-old aircraft carrier ‘Clemenceau’ with its nuclear successor the ‘Charles de Gaulle’ in 1997, it looked for a place to scrap the old flagship of France’s strike force. Since no ship dismantling yard in Europe was willing or able to decommission this vessel measuring 265 metres in length and weighing just under 25 000 tonnes, the French navy sold it to a shipbreaking yard in India.

Up until December 31 last year, the vessel had been berthed at France’s naval base in Toulon. But on New Year’s Eve, the ship embarked on its long journey to Alang in the Gujarat province of north-west India - and this proved to be the beginning of a ‘Clemenceau’ soap opera.

Call for full decontamination

Claiming that the old aircraft carrier was full of asbestos, PCBs, lead (paint) and other toxic materials, environmental groups called on the French government to prevent the ship from going to India unless full decontamination was first carried out in France. They argued that this approach would ensure compliance with Basel Convention rules which bar the export of hazardous wastes.

The French government, however, claimed that the ‘Clemenceau’ was a warship and was therefore exempt from Basel Convention rules. It also contended that all but 45 tonnes of the ship’s approximately 160 tonnes of asbestos had been removed, and that it contained no other toxic materials.

Environmental groups argued that, on the contrary, the vessel not only contained many hundreds of tonnes of asbestos, but also oil sludge, lead and other heavy metals, as well as large quantities of PCBs.
Canal route U-turn

Environmental groups - including Greenpeace, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and Friends of the Earth - rejected the suggestion that the carrier did not fall under the Basel Convention, claiming that the rules offer no exemption for military vessels. Their protests led the Egyptian government to ban attempts to send the vessel through the Suez Canal. However, heavy political pressure from France prompted Egyptian officials to rescind this decision.

Clearly, however, the French government had underestimated the power of the environmental action groups. These claimed that the French had not told the truth about the volume of toxic goods on board the ‘Clemenceau’, and raised the case in the Indian courts. On January 16 this year, India’s Supreme Court barred the ‘Clemenceau’ from its waters until February 13 to give the country’s customs department the time to clarify its stance on this controversial issue. The Supreme Court observed: ‘We do not want the pollution of Indian waters; and ultimately if we decide against its entry, the ship has to go back to France.’ BAN added that the export of this ship represented a clear violation of Article 16 of Europe’s waste shipment regulations. Since the vessel was asked to remain at least 220 nautical miles off the Indian coast, the French decided to anchor it at Tgiduti Bay in the Arabian Sea. In the meantime, France’s ambassador to India tried to appease the Indians by suggesting that France might be willing to take back some of the waste generated by breaking operations, such as bundled asbestos.

Shipbreaking recession in India

Shipbreaking activity in India nose-dived from 300 ships in 2003/04 to nearer 70 in the ensuing fiscal year, leading to the idling of three-quarters of Alang’s 40 000-strong workforce. Some 680 000 tonnes of vessel scrap was generated in 2004/05 compared to 3 million tonnes as recently as 1998/99. The reasons include: good demand for overseas cargoes and hence fewer vessels being offered for dismantling; and fierce competition from Bangladesh and Pakistan where wages are lower than in India and environmental controls are more lax.

When such problems occurred in the past, many ship owners simply renamed their vessels and sold them to ship owners in countries which had not signed up to the Basel Convention. But the profile of the ‘Clemenceau’ case is now so high that such a move would be unlikely to succeed.


The final stage of the Clemensoap was heralded on February 13, when the French State Council ruled that selling the Clemenceau for dismantling to India was illegal and a violation of the Basel Convention. This induced French President Jacques Chirac to put a definitive end to the saga. On February 15, Mr Chirac ordered the return of the controversial aircraft carrier to French waters, arguing that it was France’s duty to act in an ‘exemplary and transparent way’.

The ship will remain in harbour while an investigation is launched to discover how much asbestos and other toxic substances are present on the vessel. The total costs for towing the Clemenceau to India and back to France will amount to about € 3 million. Dutch company ICT which is specialised in worldwide towing services, will be more than happy to present this bill to the French authorities.

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