Defiant French refuse to lift ban on British beef imports

FRANCE ISSUED a stunning rebuff to the Labour Government and the European Union last night by refusing to lift its illegal embargo on imports of British beef.

Against all expectations, French ministers decided that new safeguards agreed with London and Brussels last month did not offer sufficient protection to French consumers from possible infection with the human version of mad cow disease.

The decision was angrily rejected as "wrong" by Downing Street and is certain to cause a row that will overshadow the European Union summit begining in Helsinki tomorrow.

It came as a humiliating setback for Tony Blair, who had courted Jacques Chirac, the French President, and Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister at a recent Downing Street summit. The Labour Party fears that French defiance of EU law will harden British public opinion against early entry to the euro.

The beef dispute now seems certain to drag into a lengthy legal battle in the European Court - exactly the outcome that the Government wished to avoid. The French government - saying that it was "driven by a priority concern for public health" - called for an immediate resumption of negotiations on two points: wider testing of British cattle for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE); and more precise labelling of British exports.

These demands seem certain to be rejected by the European Commission and the Government today. Both London and Brussels thought that they had negotiated in good faith last month a package of measures covering precisely these points, and others, which would be enough to end the two-month-old beef crisis. The European Commission will now go ahead with the second stage of its legal action against France for its stance on beef.

A committee of French BSE experts gave a non-committal response on Monday to the new safeguards agreed last month, saying that progress had been made but that "plausible" risks remained. It was thought that the experts' report was sufficiently vague to allow the French government room to take a political decision to avoid a major European crisis by lifting the ban.

But the Jospin government's political courage appears to have failed in the face of pressure from consumer groups and right-wing opposition parties. French farmers were in favour of lifting the ban.

During a two-hour meeting last night, it is believed that ministers directly involved in the dispute were split over the issue. It was only when Lionel Jospin came down on the side of public safety that the decision was taken to maintain the ban.

The French government revealed in a statement that it had decided to put the "safety of consumers first". It said that the committee of French scientists had expressed fears that some of the new measures agreed with Britain would not be put into effect immediately by the Government.

They were also concerned that scientific understanding of BSE was still "developing rapidly" and that unknown methods of transmission of the disease between cattle might still be proved to exist.

Under these circumstances, the statement said, the French government was "not in a position today to lift the embargo". It hinted, however, that it might change its mind if it could have its two areas on unease satisfied. This would need the Government to introduce an enlarged and improved system of testing cattle for mad cow disease and an immediate adoption of EU rules on the labelling of British beef and the traceability of meat exports to their farm and animal of origin.

These demands will provoke consternation in London and Brussels. The French agriculture minister, Jean Glavany, had expressed himself satisfied last month with the progress in precisely these areas.

The Labour Government will be furious that, despite being fully aware of the domestic and European consequences to Britain, the Jospin government appears to have taken the path leading to the least political resistance at home. Downing Street said last night that Mr Blair had already spoken to Mr Jospin to protest at the French decision.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: "We have science and the law on our side and it is regrettable that the French had ignored the science and defied the law. It now means we have to go through the courts, a process that everyone had hoped to avoid. It means too that the French are totally isolated on this issue."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor