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France Faces Fine Over Lack of Hamster Love

Jun 20, 2008
Weird but true, France is being threatened with a 17 million penalty if it doesn't clean up its act and come up with a strategy to save the European hamster, one of the continent's most threatened species.

Last week the European Commission, the executive branch of the 27-member European Union, gave France a two-month deadline or else it would have to cough up the whopping fine for failing to comply with the Habitats Directive (yes we're in Eurobabbleland here) to prevent the rodent's extinction.

The Directive requires all member states to designate sites for conservation and to protect various listed species.

The little fellah at the centre of the warning is the Cricetus cricetus better known as the "great hamster of Alsace" or the black-bellied Hamster, and as one of its name suggests is native to eastern France.

According to the Commission's statistics - and don't even begin to ask who does the counting, or how - the number of burrows for the rodent have fallen dramatically in recent years, down from 1,100 in 2001 to just 167 in 2007.

The decline in population is put down to urban development and just as importantly increased levels of farming, both of which have led to the hamster's loss of natural habitat.

In addition apparently the growth of profitable maize crops has left it with little to eat when it awakes from its winter hibernation in March.

It can't be an easy job being taken seriously when such concerns are raised, but there is an important lesson to be learned from the decline in the hamster's population according to the EU's Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.

He insists that the drop in numbers is nature's way of sending out a bigger message and it's beholden to everyone to heed that fact.

Brussels issued France a warning last December but maintains that not enough has been done and is now demanding a bigger effort from the French government or else face a fine.

France is also in trouble over its plans to extend the port of Saint Nazaire in the west of the country - a proposal which would destroy 50 hectares of wetlands protected under another EU-wide scheme.

On the surface perhaps it would yet again appear that the EU is doing what its critics would say it does best - handing down seemingly daft orders that are totally out of proportion with many of the other issues it faces.

For example there's a vital vote on the future of the EU itself on Thursday when Irish voters decide on whether to ratify the so-called mini-treaty. A "no" could scupper plans to revamp its institutions and appoint a permanent president.

It would also leave the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, floundering to make his six-month rotating presidency of the EU effective, when France takes over in July.

Perhaps though among all the politicking, Sarkozy will spare a thought for the "cute" (in one Commission official's words) little hamster and save the French taxpayer a hunk of money into the bargain.

After all "The man who saved the hamster" has a certain ring to it - doesn't it?
About the Author
Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist specializing in politics, sport and travel. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at http://www.persiflagefrance.com
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