France's new Socialist government has been accused of bowing to big business and the energy lobby after the environment minister was removed from her post following her order to freeze international oil exploration off the coast of French Guiana.
Shell, Europe's biggest oil producer, and its partners including Total, have got the go-ahead to begin drilling at four sites off the coast of French Guiana, an overseas département on the north-east coast of South America.
But their long-standing plans had been thrown into doubt earlier this month after the newly appointed French environment minister, Nicole Bricq, announced a suspension of oil-drilling permits, saying the Shell project "insufficiently … took into account environmental problems". With Arnaud Montebourg, the French minister for re-industrialisation, she issued a statement saying: "We are very keen to protect marine life and the environment, and we have no guarantees regarding them."
Bricq said the new government under François Hollande wanted to revise the Napoleonic-era French mining code that governs issues including oil drilling, because previous reforms of it had barely taken the environment into account.
But while environmental groups backed Bricq's decision to suspend drilling permits, the oil companies, who were set to begin exploration this week, were taken by surprise. Some local representatives in Guiana were also angry at the freeze, arguing that returns from oil could help alleviate poverty in in the region, which suffers from high unemployment and poor infrastructure.
Bricq, who had been at the Rio+20 Earth summit, was last week conspicuously moved from her post in a reshuffle and given the job of minister for foreign trade. The government then backtracked on the decision to freeze permits, allowing oil exploration off Guiana to go ahead.
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a rightwinger who was environment minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, said the Socialist government "had given in to pressure from the oil companies". Le Monde, meanwhile, ran a front-page story saying the move raised questions about Hollande's commitment to the environment and showed he was more concerned with boosting French industry, dealing with unemployment and saving the euro than making the environment a priority.
The French Green party, EELV, which owes its good showing in the parliamentary election to a deal with the Socialists, was surprised at Bricq's move. The party's new leader, Pascal Durand, said this weekend: "I don't know whether [Bricq] really left because of the exploration in Guiana. If it's the case it's very serious." He said it would be "a very bad signal" from the government to the environmental community "and society as a whole".
Cécile Duflot, the former Green party leader who is one of two Green ministers in Hollande's government, downplayed the affair this weekend, telling French media Bricq had revealed she regarded her move as a promotion. Duflot said she did not believe there was a link between the drilling issue and Bricq's change of post.