Tourists who knowingly take chances may face liability
French tourists taking risks overseas may have to pay for their rescue and repatriation
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French tourists who run into trouble after taking unnecessary risks overseas could have to pay for their rescue and repatriation under legislation debated today by MPs in Paris.
The proposed law, put forward by a government tired of having to foot the bill, would enable the state to demand reimbursement for "all or part of the costs … of foreign rescue operations" if it deems that travellers had ventured knowingly and without "legitimate motive" into risky territory.
According to the foreign ministry, the bill is an attempt to encourage a "culture of responsibility" among French travellers at a time of frequent kidnappings, hijackings and civil instability across the world. The ministry hopes that the prospect of being saddled with paying costs such as emergency air fares home will make people think twice about venturing into territory classified as dangerous. There is no question of ransoms being included in the cost, unsurprisingly, as France insists it never pays them.
Several French-led overseas missions in recent years have sparked debate over who should shoulder the financial burden for holidays gone drastically wrong.
Last year, several French yachts were hijacked by pirates off Somalia, with one of the commando raids culminating in a man, Florent Lemacon, being killed. Officials expressed exasperation that the sailors had been warned repeatedly of the region's dangers but sailed on nonetheless.
It is unclear which, if any, of these rescue operations would have been affected by the legislation, which applies to "people who have deliberately exposed themselves, without a legitimate motive stemming from their professional situation or a situation of emergency, to risks of which they could not have been unaware".
Similar steps have been taken by other countries, including Germany, where last year a court ruled that a German backpacker taken hostage in Colombia in 2003 should pay €12,000 (£10,775) to cover the cost of her helicopter rescue.
Speaking in the French parliament today, Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister and co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières, fought off criticism that the proposed law indicated an abdication of responsibility on the part of the state.
"None has been neglected; none will be. We always intervene at the far ends of the planet in order to save our compatriots," he said as he presented the bill to MPs in the assemblée nationale.
But the law – approved by the senate in May – has its critics. Many feel it is the state's duty to help its citizens in need, no matter how reckless their activities.
The Socialist opposition accused the government of damaging press freedom by refusing to specifically make journalists exempt from the measure.
"It would be a serious assault on our democracy to put these people in a position of having to justify the legitimate motive behind the risks they are taking. It would be above all an obstacle to the freedom of the press," wrote Hervé Féron, a Socialist MP, on his blog.
But the government insists that neither journalists nor aid workers would be affected by the law, which would be applied "case by case". "Obviously journalists who take risks are protected … They are excluded, aid workers too," said Kouchner.
The issue is particularly sensitive now due to the six-month captivity of two French journalists in Afghanistan. In February, the then chief of the defence staff, General Jean-Louis Georgelin, caused outrage when he estimated the cost of rescuing the men at €10m, and said he was making it public knowledge in order to try to encourage "a sense of responsibility".
It is unclear to what extent the French law would affect adventure seekers and extreme sports participants, whose daring exploits and dramatic rescue stories provoke sporadic rows over whether the taxpayer should foot the bill for the recklessness of a minority.
Last month Australia and France paid for the return of Abby Sunderland, the teenage sailor who got lost at sea and whose rescue is estimated to have cost up to $300,000. But her exploits pale in comparison with those of Jim Shekhdar, a Briton who had to be rescued twice while trying to row solo from Queensland to Cape Town in 2003. Both operations are believed to have cost six-figure sums.
All at sea
2010 US sailor Abby Sunderland, 16, rescued in the Indian Ocean during a solo attempt to sail around the world. The mission cost more than £116,000.
2009 French military mounted a mission to the Gulf of Aden to rescue French hostages held by Somali pirates.
2008 France said to have paid more than €700,000 to fly home 500 tourists stranded in Thailand as the country erupted in civil conflict.
2008 Briton Richard Neely and girlfriend Allyson Dalton rescued after going missing while diving on the Great Barrier Reef.
2008 Frigate sent to rescue Yann Elies, injured in a yacht race in the Southern Ocean. The cost was £480,000.