France ignores EU legislation in the run-up to the UN summit

Once again, a country in the Global North is plundering the planet for capitalist profit and exacerbating the biodiversity crisis. Now two environmental campaign groups have launched legal action against the government for ignoring EU law. This time it’s France, for violating the EU’s ocean protection policy.

Strikingly, the European country is engaged in a dazzling show of shameless hypocrisy as it prepares to host a major ocean summit.

Marine protected areas: France ignores EU law

In the Mediterranean, France currently allows highly destructive fishing methods, such as bottom trawling, in its so-called ‘protected’ marine areas. This despite a European ban.

In 2006, the EU adopted the Mediterranean Regulation to protect important habitats and fish populations from overexploitation and damage. In concrete terms, this bans bottom trawling, pelagic trawling, purse seining and dredging in all Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that host certain sensitive habitats.

Those sensitive habitats include seagrass meadows such as Posidonia meadows, coral reefs and maerl beds. The latter are mats of red algae that serve as breeding grounds and nurseries for many marine species.

Given that the marine ecosystems in the Mediterranean are in a catastrophic state, this regulation is crucial. Significant is a 2020 study in the journal One Earth found that EU countries did not regulate 95% of MPAs beyond adjacent waters.

In violation of EU law, France refuses to implement these bans and continues to allow the most destructive practices. It has done this through various decrees and derogations within its so-called ‘protected’ marine areas.

That is why campaign group BLOOM and ClientEarth have now taken legal action to address the French government.

Shocking hypocrisy

The legal action comes as France prepares to host the third United Nations Conference on the Oceans in June 2025. Ironically, France will hold the meeting in Nice on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

The non-profits are demanding that France revise three decrees allowing bottom trawling in certain French MPAs, where it should be banned. The pair have stated that they will not hesitate to take France to court if the government does not respond positively to the request.

According to Nils Courcy, a legal expert at ClientEarth:

The simple fact that France allows trawlers to fish in protected areas that should be closed to trawling is a scandal. The European legal framework is not respected. The French interpretation is contrary to the letter and spirit of the law and tramples on the most important European environmental principles.

Furthermore, France is endangering the protection of the oceans outside its waters. In April, conservationists accused the French government of hypocrisy over its protest against a set of new MPA rules announced by Britain.

Specifically, in January the UK government imposed a ban on trawling in 13 MPAs in its territorial and economic waters. French diplomats, backed by the dragnet lobby, have spoken out against the ban – especially as it applies to Britain’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). These are the stretches of ocean that generally extend 200 nautical miles (370 km) from their coastline. Fishermen from France and other countries have had access to these areas.

France is currently leading efforts to force Britain to abandon its ban on trawling in these MPAs. Notably, it has gone so far as to form a coalition of eight European states to block Britain’s attempt to protect them. The coalition is trying to do this through the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between Britain and the EU.

MPAs: ‘so-called protected areas’

And while the UK government has announced this ban, ocean campaign groups have said even this step does not go far enough. Oceana Executive Director Hugo Tagholm said in January that:

the fact that this ban only applies to reefs and rocks in just 13 MPAs still leaves large areas of our so-called ‘protected’ areas open to this extremely harmful practice.

Targeting reef and rock habitats alone does not take into account the habitats and wildlife beyond these boundaries and does not support the full recovery of marine ecosystems. Allowing destructive bottom trawling to continue anywhere in any marine protected area is completely incompatible with the recovery and flourishing of ocean life.

Moreover, the names are just the beginning. In particular, groups have documented destructive trawlers fishing in protected status locations. For example, Greenpeace has previously shown how supertrawlers – factory ships over 100 meters long – spent almost 3,000 hours decimating MPAs in 2019.

Additionally, Oceana has since found that ships spent more than 33,000 hours bottom trawling in so-called MPAs in 2023.

In other words, parts of the ocean may have protected designations, but without accompanying monitoring and enforcement, these locations remain vulnerable to illegal trawling. Environmentalists have long called these “paper parks” – in short, lines on a map that bear no resemblance to the reality of ocean protection.

Therefore, the efforts of France and the coalition to weaken even this limited level of protection are alarming for the coming negotiations. Courcy said:

With one year to go before the United Nations Conference on the Oceans, which France will host in Nice, France’s task is to be consistent and credible in this area.

The ‘sham’ of French ocean protection

Since France is not the only country to allow bottom trawling in protected areas, a lawsuit could have far-reaching consequences for MPAs across the bloc. As such, a victory would set a precedent for protected areas across the EU.

BLOOM’s head of advocacy Swann Bommier said that:

France continues to flout the European regulatory framework with impunity and bows to the demands of industrial fishing lobbies. As a result, all marine ecosystems of the Mediterranean are threatened. At a time when the scientific community is raising the alarm about the state of the oceans, and in particular the Mediterranean Sea, it is urgent that Emmanuel Macron puts an end to the appearance of ‘French’ protection and brings his actions in line with his rhetoric which aims to make France a ‘great ocean nation’.

Greece, on the other hand, sets an example when it comes to protecting MPAs. Based on scientific recommendations and the European framework, the Greek government announced last April a ban on bottom trawling in all its marine protected areas by 2030.

Feature image via Naval Architecture – YouTube

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