THIS week, French President Francois Hollande will visit Malaysia, for discussions on trade and expanding France’s presence in South-East Asia.
His visit comes at a time when France-Malaysia relations are at a fork in the road. Why?
The ongoing attack by the French elite, environmental NGOs and domestic oilseed producers against one of Malaysia’s most important exports, palm oil. Of course, this is the ‘Nutella Tax.’ 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, which is specifically designed to make palm oil less competitive in France compared to domestic oils.
Each time this proposal is presented, a flurry of actions unfolds. Environmental groups make wildly inaccurate claims about palm oil; the French media fans the flames; and at times, French political leaders also join in the attacks. In 2016, Segolene Royal famously claimed “we should stop eating Nutella because it contains palm oil”.
Italian politicians quickly responded to Royal, countering she should “leave Italian products alone”. The defence of Nutella reached all the way to the then-Italian Prime Minister’s office.
PM Matteo Renzi’s 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 buyisg Airbus.The end result? Minister Royal apologised, and the Nutella Tax was dropped.
The pressure worked.
Is President Hollande’s trip meant as a détente?
Unfortunately not. 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 pre-determined 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 program is to “set up policy frameworks promoting, in an incentive way, behaviours 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.
Thus far, France and most European governments have ignored Malaysia’s efforts on sustainable palm oil. Malaysia’s environmental management credentials lead the region. The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard follows international best practices.
The industry is also investing in a far-reaching method for high carbon stock forests. It has also signaled it is open to bilateral trade arrangement for palm oil based on sustainability and incorporating the MSPO.
But apparently this means little. The old European way of dealing with developing countries needs to change.
Malaysia is one of many developing nations now with more power and influence in the world. It is time to use it, to defend your products. Francois Hollande’s visit to Malaysia is important for French business: according to French media reports, there are hopes of defence contracts being signed. Alongside such French priorities, the President should be asked to recognize the Malaysian priority of Palm Oil. First, he should support G2G initiatives. President Hollande should announce that the French Government will provide technical and financial support to helping develop and strengthen MSPO, the Malaysian Government’s standard.
Second, President Hollande should commit that France will not tax palm oil. In 2013, former Prime Minister and now Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault promised that France would not tax palm oil, and that promise needs to be re-stated by President Hollande.
Third, President Hollande should recognise the achievements Malaysia has made in terms of environmental management and sustainable commodities. These would be the actions of a true friend; it remains to be seen if France will agree.
Pierre Bois d’Enghien is an agronomist and environmental expert working closely with many of Europe’s leading players in plantations and agricultural development including Socfin, SIAT and Feronia. He also serves as an auditor to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.