PARIS: Nicole Bricq, France’s Minister of Foreign Trade, will be in Malaysia until tomorrow to attend the 2013 Global Summit of Women.
The minister’s visit comes during a tense period in Franco-Malaysian trade relations due to French attacks on palm oil, a crucial commodity for the Malaysian economy.
Last year, French politicians proposed a 300 per cent tax increase on palm oil, supposedly to improve public health.
In the end, the French National Assembly rejected the tax since the allegedly harmful effects of palm oil could not be scientifically documented.
In fact, French experts such as Dr Jean Michel Lecerf of the Pasteur Institute and Dr Odile Morin of ITERG have published research showing that palm oil is a healthy and nutritious product that is perfectly compatible with a balanced and healthy lifestyle.
However, palm oil still suffered reputational damage as a result of the proposed tax increase. The French government has made some amends by agreeing to a joint Franco-Malaysian taskforce to explore ways to provide more accurate information about palm oil.
Yet the fact remains that palm oil-producing countries such as Malaysia and Cote d’Ivoire now have reason to doubt France’s commitment to economic cooperation.
It doesn’t help the situation that a French member of the European Parliament, Corinne Lepage, is currently leading an effort to discriminate against palm oil in new European biofuels policies.
Lepage is promoting a scientifically flawed concept known as Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC), which claims that palm oil production harms the environment by displacing rain forest.
What the concept misses is the fact that palm oil is by far the least land-intensive of all the competing products used to make biofuels.
A true green policy would, thus, promote reforestation of France and other European countries rather than a halt to palm oil development in Malaysia. Incidentally, Malaysia currently has 63 per cent of its land under forest cover. The corresponding figure for France is 29 per cent.
Furthermore, major French corporations such as Casino, Système U and St Michel have launched campaigns against palm oil in order to promote their own “palm oil free” products.
In the case of Système U, the campaign was so blatantly misleading that a group of small farmers from Africa sued the company and won the case in French court.
The French attacks on palm oil are unfortunate on many fronts. First of all, disinformation and boycotts in France harm thousands of Malaysians who depend on palm oil to make a living.
Businesses related to palm oil employ more than 800,000 people in Malaysia, including 240,000 small farmers who account for 40 per cent of the land under cultivation. Palm oil accounts for 10 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product.
Thanks in large part to palm oil production, Malaysia has successfully reduced poverty from 50 per cent at independence to less then five per cent today.
Secondly, France is missing out on the growth opportunities that
would follow from closer ties to Malaysia. At this time when the French economy remains stagnant, it is in the national interest of France to tie itself to the rising tiger economies of Southeast Asia, notably Malaysia.
France has a proud tradition of sophisticated diplomacy to advance its national interest.
Bricq would do well to keep this tradition in mind during her visit.
It would be wise for the French minister to reassure her Malaysian counterparts about the commitment of the French government to economic development in Malaysia.
Such a commitment must necessarily include reassurances that France will not discriminate against palm oil.
Ideally, Bricq should go even further and positively embrace palm oil as a core strategic product for the economic future of both France and Malaysia.
Such an act would go a long way in countering the negative and misguided campaigns by French corporations and politicians.
Source : Business Times