An environmental spat between France and Brazil, rolling in questions about integrity, colonialism and Bic pens, shows signs of deepening with calls by dozens of French lawmakers and environmental groups to slap trade sanctions on Brazilian beef and soybeans.
In a petition published Sunday in France's weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, the group also called on the European Union to suspend a recently agreed Mercosur trade deal with South America and take broader steps barring products issued from deforestation and other environmentally harmful activities from entering the European market.
"What is lacking is political will" in France and elsewhere in Europe in ensuring green commerce, wrote the group of signatories, who included members of French President Emmanuel Macron's La Republique en Marche (LREM) party.
While opposition to trade pacts is nothing new, the backlash to Mercosur comes at a time when other trade spats, including between the U.S. and China and Japan and South Korea, are also making headlines. And, some analysts say, it reflects growing alarm of ordinary Europeans about the social and environmental impacts of trade deals that is resonating among their leaders.
"Europeans are very concerned about climate and human rights, and the Bolsonaro administration's policies are going in all the wrong directions," said Uri Dadush, senior fellow at Brussels-based economic think-tank Bruegel, referring to Brazilian leader Jair Bolsonaro. "That's a different dimension from the trade agreement, but the two are becoming linked."
G-7 and wildfires
The citizen pushback adds kindling to a diplomatic dispute that ignited last month when G-7 host Macron added Amazon wildfires to the summit's agenda, claiming their environmental impact was of global concern. The move, along with Macron's threat to block the Mercosur trade deal over Amazon inaction, spiraled into trans-Atlantic barbs, ranging from Bolsonaro's accusations of colonialism and an apparent slur targeting Macron's wife, to claims the Brazilian leader lied over climate change promises.
More recently, Bolsonaro — who conditioned accepting some $20 million in G-7 aid to fight Amazon fires to Macron's apologizing for calling him rude — announced he would stop using French Bics, although the pens sold in Brazil are manufactured locally.
Beyond the mud slinging, however, environmentalists hope the wildfires will nudge European leaders into a bigger rethink of Mercosur.
"We saw Europe was inclined to sign the treaty," said Adelie Favrel, forest specialist for NGO France Nature Environnement, one of the signatories of the Amazon petition. "If deforestation had not become center stage, with the media talking about it, these environmental concerns might not have been raised."
She and others are demanding France enforce a two-year-old law requiring companies to mitigate the environmental and human rights consequences of their actions — such as importing soybeans that may contribute to the Amazon's deforestation — and that EU countries adopt similar legislation.
A separate French petition to boycott companies supporting Bolsonaro's government has recently collected nearly 2,000 signatories. More broadly, a number of U.S. and European countries have paused or reconsidered financial deals with Brazil over the Amazon fires, Britain's Guardian newspaper reports.
Mercosur trade agreement
Still Europe is divided over linking the Mercosur pact to Amazon action. Along with France, Luxembourg and Ireland have similarly threatened to block it. But powerhouse Germany counts among other EU members opposed to such a move.
"We're not going to attack the climate challenge by refusing to do trade," European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom told Le Monde newspaper.
Macron initially gave a thumbs up to the Mercosur trade agreement signed in June between the EU and four South American nations after years of talks. But the good will vanished with the Amazon fires, as the French leader accused Bolsonaro of "lying" over climate change promises made just weeks before.
The French president has earned kudos overseas for spearheading a green agenda, including his iconic "Make the Planet Great Again" twist to the Trump administration's America-first agenda. But at home, critics claim Macron has failed to match rhetoric with deeds. His popular environment minister Nicolas Hulot quit a year ago, citing lack of progress on climate and other green goals.
"Macron's talked a lot about being an environmental champion, but we haven't seen any action," said environmentalist Favrel. "If the EU ultimately signs Mercosur without any concrete changes, it will be the same as what's happened in France."
Dadush of Bruegel thinks Mercosur faces challenges for other reasons. Other powerful interest groups, including European farmers, are against the deal. Brazil has threatened to pull out of Mercosur if Argentina's opposition wins next month's presidential elections.
"The agreement overall is under significant risk," he said, "and the fires in the Amazon do not help at all."