As France mourned Jacques Chirac, an environmental catastrophe was overlooked

After a disastrous fire at a chemical plant in Rouen, few are reassured by the government’s insistence that the air is safe.

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An industrial and ecological disaster with potentially toxic repercussions to public health happened last week in France. But you wouldn’t know it. Within hours of the accident former French president Jacques Chirac died and any hope of adequate coverage of the catastrophe went with him.

The Lubrizol chemical plant in Rouen, Normandy, went up in flames in the early hours of 26 September, burning not only the lubricants produced on the site but also the structure’s roof, which contained asbestosThe plant was classified as “Seveso”, meaning it manipulated or stocked “dangerous substances”. While the media mourned Chirac, the “last of the great French statesmen”, who served as president from 1995 to 2007, black smoke and strong chemical smells engulfed the Rouen area; rain left black soot everywhere; people were advised to stay inside; public schools and buildings were shut due to safety concerns. Of all the French newspapers, only the local Paris Normandie chose to lead its front page with the Rouen blaze.

That night, in a TV address, French President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to his predecessor, praising Chirac as “a great, free Frenchman” who “deeply loved people in their diversity”. (Chirac was also the first president to be condemned in court over a “fake jobs” scandal during his Paris mayoralty, among other dubious activities, and was also known for racist sound bites and reckless nuclear tests in the Pacific.) 

Macron proceeded to announce a state funeral for Chirac and presided over the military tribute, which united 2,000 world leaders and French celebrities, at the Invalides in Paris on Monday after people queued all weekend to pay homage to the late leader (the Invalides were open all night to accommodate the crowds). Of the Rouen blaze, and its potentially devastating impact on the environment, the President has said nothing. 

Despite reassuring declarations from the authorities of the Rouen préfecture, which has described air quality in the city as “normal”, and claims from Prime Minister Edouard Philippe that the strong smells still present are “a nuisance, but not harmful”, anxiety is rising among locals. 

Almost a week after the disaster, many locals still report feeling ill, with several cases of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Policemen who answered the first calls onsite have been signed off due to similar symptoms. Schools that were initially closed after the fire reopened on Monday and were required, like all French schools, to hold a minute of silence for Chirac — but teachers chose to suspend classes after pupils complained of feeling unwell. “We want to know what we’re breathing,” locals told French media. 

While the French authorities insisted the situation was safe, the measures they took raised alarm. A ban on the harvesting of crops and the sale of animal produce from the Rouen area was imposed as a precautionary measure. The black soot was deemed “liable to present a public health risk” and any food product likely to have been exposed to it was destroyed. “Organic smoke doesn’t exist”, worried farmers told Le Monde. Air quality control group Atmo Normandie said that air quality in Rouen on Saturday remained impaired by the Lubrizol fire. The air quality index, they noted, was not designed to detect “unusual pollutants” in the atmosphere — contradicting the préfecture, which had labelled the air “normal”. 

However, the préfecture conceded that this was not the case on the site of Lubrizol where benzene was detected. But with the closest houses only a few streets away the site, it’s unlikely that the chemicals stopped at Lubrizol’s fences (unless the declaration was meant to echo the infamous 1986 claim by Chirac’s government that the Chernobyl nuclear cloud “stopped at French borders”). The list of chemical products on the plant at the time of the fire has yet to be released and air quality analyses are still underway.

This led locals to protest on Monday in front of the Rouen metropolitan council, where the préfecture was meeting with city officials behind locked doors. Officials and protesters demanded the “truth” about “what was in the air”. Some are planning to file a complaint against the authorities for “endangering the lives of others”.

In obscuring what might be the country’s worst industrial incident in years, France’s efforts to pay tribute to Chirac have ironically illustrated the former president’s 2002 declaration“Our house is burning and we are looking elsewhere.” 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.