France calls for cleaner existence

Stamping camembert with a "carbon footprint" rating. Charging Parisians for the empty discarded Bordeaux bottles. Banning high speeds through the pasture-lined highways of the Loire Valley.

France is trying to clean up its act, readying measures this week aimed at reversing its image as environmental laggard and making it a pioneer in the fight against global warming and other threats to the Earth's well-being.

Yet environmental groups fear the measures, to be finalized at a conference Wednesday and Thursday, will be too watered down to make a difference in France's carbon emissions and have little impact on worldwide efforts to reduce the pollution that is warming the planet.

President Nicolas Sarkozy isn't letting those fears slow his push to raise France's eco-profile.

He put global warming high on his agenda after his election in May, creating Europe's most powerful environment ministry and berating the United States for its resistance to emissions cuts. At the United Nations, Sarkozy urged developed countries and major polluters to commit to a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050.

Sarkozy's friendly relations with U.S. President George W. Bush have had no apparent effect on U.S. climate policy, but the French president is reaching out to other Americans, too: Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who won this year's Nobel Peace prize for his work against global warming, will be at Sarkozy's side at this week's conference in Paris, Sarkozy's office said.

At twilight Tuesday, the Eiffel Tower's twinkling lights went out for five minutes - along with lights at the Elysee presidential palace, the prime minister's office and other sites - to call attention to energy consumption and its consequences.

Households were asked to join in and many apparently did. The company that manages the flow of electricity, RTE, said it measured a 0.9 percent drop in consumption - equivalent to use of 10 million 60-Watt light bulbs.

The measures to be announced Thursday came out of three months of talks between activists, farmers, businesses and government officials that have been fraught with friction.

They made no progress on nuclear energy - which Sarkozy champions and environmental groups reject - or on biofuels, the junior minister for ecology, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said in an interview.

Still, she insisted the conference was a crucial first step.

"We want to see what we can do ourselves, with the idea to be exemplary, to be pioneers," she said in an interview. "We think that there are new markets, a new economy" to be tapped in making the French more environmentally conscious, she added.

Ideas emerging include stickers on food packaging indicating how much carbon dioxide was emitted in making the product; lowering speed limits on roads throughout France to encourage fuel efficiency; charging households per kilogram of garbage they produce; charging money to drive in big cities; requiring environmentally "clean" cafeteria food; and refitting historical mansions to make them more energy efficient.

Greenpeace International director Gerd Liepold was unimpressed.

"There's nothing groundbreaking in this," he said. "What is happening in France is what happened in other European countries 10, 15 years ago."

France is more dependent on nuclear energy than any other nation and falls behind several European neighbors in recycling, energy conservation and cleaning up agriculture. France was later than other developed nations in banning use of asbestos, and concerns are mounting lately about the long-term health risks.

Genetically modified crops are another sensitive topic in this country that values its agriculture. The conference may produce a temporary freeze on GM crops but activists say that is not enough.

Yannick Jadot of Greenpeace France said Tuesday that if the conference doesn't lead to a long-term ban on GM crops, it will be a "total failure."

Jim Leape, director of the World Wildlife Federation, urged Sarkozy to get the EU to take a strong stance on emissions cuts ahead of crucial global warming talks in Bali in December.

"France needs to lead ... industrialized countries to stand up to this challenge. President Sarkozy's peers will be paying attention," he said.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova