A message for the French President
French President Francois Hollande visited Malaysia at the end of March to discuss trade and expand France’s presence in Southeast Asia. His visit came at a time when France-Malaysia relations are at a fork in the road.
Why? Because of the ongoing attack by the French elite, environmental NGOs and domestic oilseed producers against one of Malaysia’s most important exports: palm oil.
We’ve been here before. Since 2012, the Socialist and Green parties, with the occasional support of certain Republicans, have attempted to impose a tax on palm oil. This is specifically designed to make palm oil less competitive in France compared to domestic oils.
Each time this proposal is presented, a flurry of action unfolds. Environmental groups make wildly inaccurate claims about palm oil; the media fans the flames; and at times, political leaders also join in the attacks.
In 2016, French Environment Minister Segolene Royal famously claimed “we should stop eating Nutella because it contains palm oil”. Italian politicians quickly responded, countering that she should “leave Italian products alone”. The defence of Nutella reached all the way to the Italian Prime Minister’s office – his wife and son visited a Nutella stand in an open rebuke to Minister Royal.
Alongside this, Malaysia launched an aggressive defence of its palm oil, while an open threat was made by Indonesia that it would stop buying Airbus. The end result? Minister Royal apologised, and the ‘Nutella Tax’ was dropped. The pressure worked.
Recently, Paris established a little-known committee called the Sustainability Criteria Commission. Its stated purpose is to advance sustainability of produce. In reality, it is about re-introducing the ‘Nutella Tax’ through the back door.
The Commission is focusing on palm oil. Producer countries are not involved. This is a Potemkin Committee, set up to justify a predetermined outcome to criticise palm oil.
This is not all. Recently, CIRAD, the respected organisation with years of palm oil engagement, launched a programme with the French Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil. The stated purpose of this joint programme is to ‘set up policy frameworks promoting, in an incentive way, behaviour compatible with the sustainability of the [palm oil] sector which is not yet achieved’.
CIRAD has done much good work, and there is of course a place in the debate for sustainability alliances in Europe. However, Malaysia should look at this joint programme carefully and make sure the planters’ voice is heard, in order to avoid another new European-led sustainability standard at the end of the process.