French parliamentarians scrapped plans for a tax on unsustainable palm oil in 2016 after being warned by France’s government that passing the law could lead to the execution of a French citizen in Indonesia.
A former minister described the warning as “possible blackmail” and said it had swung the decision against the tax.
The warning to French MPs came amid intense negotiations between Indonesia and France over the fate of Serge Atlaoui, a French citizen imprisoned in Indonesia on drugs charges in 2007.
A former diplomat said that a French delegation left a meeting with the Indonesian government where both the palm oil tax and the death penalty were discussed wondering if the Indonesians “had just made a threat or not.”
The news, based on discussions with French politicians, officials and diplomats, is being reported here for the first time in the English-speaking press.
Palm oil tax
Palm oil is “a major contributor to global warming”, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, as current production methods require the destruction of swathes of carbon-rich forests and peatlands.
In the summer of 2016, France’s general commission for sustainable development considered a law to tax environmentally unsustainable palm, palm kernel and copra oils at €30 per tonne in 2017, rising to €90 in 2020.
The move was strongly opposed by the world’s largest palm oil producers, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Before the vote on 22 June 2016, Delphine Batho, a French MP and former Ecology Minister, said a note from the French government was passed around MPs at a meeting of the sustainable development committee.
According to Batho, the note said it was possible that Serge Atlaoui, a French citizen imprisoned in Indonesia on drug offences in 2007, could be executed if the planned tax failed to be dropped.
Answering questions by email, the former Ecology Minister said: “This note was intended to convince members not to vote for the amendments. In the meeting, there was unfortunately a turnaround because the parliamentary majority followed this instruction.”
The French newspaper Liberation reported last June that Batho recalled some MPs having access to a French government note citing threats against French prisoners held in Indonesia.
Liberation quoted another French MP, Geneviève Gaillard, saying that the French foreign office and the Prime Minister’s office asked her to backtrack on the palm oil tax move. She reflected, “It disturbed me a lot to know that the life of that man depended on my decision.”
In correspondence with us, Batho described the threat as “possible blackmail”.
On June 22 2016, Batho gave a speech in the National Assembly denouncing “unacceptable pressures exerted on France” over the palm oil tax, without specifying what these were. “We are legislating with the knife at our throat,” she said.
When a delegation from the Indonesian embassy came to France’s Environment Ministry for a meeting ahead of the vote, one French official recalled to DeSmog: “they said that palm oil was a very important subject for them, as the death penalty could be for France.” The official remembered: “We didn’t think about it until after the meeting, when we wondered if they had just made a threat or not.”
A French government adviser at the time said that threats against Atlaoui had been “negotiated directly into bilateral meetings” at diplomatic level, and that it was “credible” to assume that the threats involved had changed the French government’s position.
The National Assembly eventually scrapped the planned tax, with Reuters reporting “strong lobbying from producing countries” on the issue.
The 2016 palm oil tax plan came just over a year after Indonesia executed eight people imprisoned for drug offences, including seven foreign nationals. In 2015, Atlaoui won a last-minute reprieve after heavy diplomatic pressure from the French government. He remains on death row today.
The French government declined to comment for this story.
A spokesperson for the Indonesian government denied that the palm oil tax plan and Ataloui’s situation were related.
“We do not comment on issues and reports based on speculative assessments. We deem it morally incorrect, irresponsible and misleading for any coverage that attempts to link the two issues together. Such reporting will benefit none. We trust that you will continue to remain objective, accurate and fact based in your reports.”
In December 2018, France’s National Assembly changed course, voting to stop palm oil in biofuels counting toward green energy targets and to remove tax incentives for adding palm oil to diesel on environmental grounds.
The move by French politicians was followed by a European Commission decision to label palm oil biofuels as unsustainable, which should mean that most palm oil in biofuels will not count towards EU renewable energy targets.
In March 2019, the European Commission published guidance that palm oil cultivation results in excessive deforestation, and that its use in transport fuels should be phased out.
However, campaigners say the law is at risk of being watered down by the European Commission after pressure from Malaysia and Indonesia. The rules exempt palm oil from smallholders or produced on “unused” land.
In recent years, southeast Asia’s palm oil sector has become dependent on EU demand for palm to fill petrol tanks, now the most popular use for the commodity in Europe.
Image: Riau palm oil plantation. Credit: Hayden/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0