In his campaign to win the 2002 presidential election in France, Jacques Chirac made a commitment "to give the principles of protecting our environment the same level of importance as the rights of man and of citizens in 1789, and the economic and social rights set out in the preamble to the 1946 Constitution", and to make environmental protection a higher cause that carries greater weight than ordinary laws. In line with this commitment, the French President has had a "Charter for the environment" drawn up, which is to be added as an annexe to the Constitution and is mentioned in the preamble as "one of the essential principles of our times".
Responsibility for drawing up this charter was given to a commission which consulted almost 200 lawyers, scientists, philosophers, experts, and four focus groups. The draft constitutional amendment, adopted by the Council of Ministers on 25 June 2003, is scheduled to be debated in parliament this spring but is generating considerable controversy.
Some people feel that the document is not sufficiently ambitious: a petition called "Better no Charter for the Environment than one without the precautionary principle" criticizes the fact that the version of the precautionary principle included in the draft is allegedly so minimal as to "exclude health issues and to target institutions but exclude private individuals". The signatories also regret that the principle of "the polluter pays" has been replaced by a "contribution towards reparation" that they consider inadequate.
For others, on the contrary, the Charter goes too far. François Ewald fears "three major consequences: an unending growth of legal intervention in social relations combined with the abandonment of the presumption of innocence, an infringement of public freedoms, and democracy handed over to professionals specializing in threats". The business lobby group Mouvement des entreprises de France for its part reckons that it is "extremely dangerous" to include the precautionary principle in the Constitution. It alleges that "the application of this principle in law and in the courts could deter some research projects from being undertaken in France" and would therefore limit the country's capacity for innovation.
Dominique Bourg, Olivier Godard and Jean-Charles Hourcade reply to these criticisms, drawing a clear distinction between the precautionary principle and the search for "zero risk". They express their surprise that anyone could be afraid that this principle might undermine scientific research or technical innovation when in fact it is an incentive to greater efforts in these areas. In recommending the adoption of "proportionate and provisional" measures aimed at warning of dangers without trying to eliminate all "scientific uncertainties", the precautionary principle is a perfectly rational approach.