Not since the unveiling of Edouard Manet's scandalous painting Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe in 1863 has a row over the humble picnic – or pique-nique – so convulsed France.
The French Environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, yesterday confirmed dark, but seemingly preposterous, rumours that have circulated in France for several days. The government intends to levy a tax on picnics.
In a country devoted to both food and the outdoors, such an idea might seem outrageous, like placing a tax on smiling. M. Borloo was, however, unabashed. "We are doing it," he told a French radio interviewer.
A tax of 90 cents (71p) per kilogram (2.2lb) will be placed on plastic and paper throwaway cups from next year as part of a government drive to protect the environment and reduce the 360kg of rubbish generated, on average, by each person in France each year. Similar "green" taxes on wasteful fridges, washing machines, televisions and batteries – and tax-breaks on their more eco-friendly equivalents – are also under consideration.
The so-called "picnic tax" was immediately attacked by the main opposition party, the Socialists, as a heartless salvo in a new class war. Why not tax the rich, who could afford to eat in restaurants, asked Stéphane Le Foll, the spokesman for the Parti Socialiste. Why tax those who could only afford to picnic?
A centre-right government which had promised to cut taxes had introduced at least a dozen new taxes in the past 16 months, he said. "The government is piling up new taxes which hurt the consumer," he argued.
French parks are crowded with picnickers each weekend, frequently consuming not just cheese and pickle sandwiches but a choice of pâtés, gateaux and salads. Unlike the two women in Manet's celebrated painting, which was ejected from the national Salon, the picnickers generally keep their clothes on.
One serial picnicker, Martine Pilon, who invites up to 20 friends to a feast in the Bois de Boulogne on most fine Sundays, had mixed feelings about the new picnic tax yesterday. "I do use plastic forks and knives and plastic or paper plates, but I insist on proper dishes or plastic dishes hidden in wicker baskets. Plastic bags are completely banned," she said.
"No one wants to pay more to picnic, but M. Borloo has a point. Plastic is very ugly at a picnic and throwaway plastic is terrible for the environment."
The picnic tax has been the subject of a heated row between the environment and finance ministries. M. Borloo – the minister for sustainable development – sees the tax as a logical progression from the decisions made at a national environment conference last year.
M. Borloo has already pushed through a "bonus-malus" system, which imposes heavy taxes on highly polluting cars and gives a tax break to environmentally friendly vehicles. He now wants to spread the idea to other goods, starting with plastic goblets, knives and forks, and non-degradable paper plates and napkins.
"We already have high taxes on other polluting products," he said. "We are now planning a tax on throwaway plastic items which will help to finance tax cuts on recyclable products. We don't like to think of this as a tax, but a levy on goods which are heavy generators of rubbish."