Jack Lang, the French Minister of Education and one of the stars of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's cabinet, stepped into a political firestorm by proposing a "national debate" on how best to address marijuana use and other drug issues.
The 60-year-old Lang, a Socialist and member of the Paris showbiz glitterati, was Minister of Culture under Socialist Prime Minister Jacques Mitterand for nine years. He gained notoriety then for championing gay rights and providing state funds for techno music as part of a government arts program. He joined Jospin's cabinet in February, in the aftermath of a powerful teachers' union strike that left the government reeling.
Lang called for "tolerance" toward marijuana and an end to what he called the "legalistic" approach. In an interview in France-Soir, he was quoted as saying, "We should put our cards on the table, working with doctors and educators and not just over cannabis. We should talk about alcohol and tobacco, which are much more destructive among the young."
Even more controversial was his declaration that he supported social welfare organizations that send teams out to nightclubs to test the quality of the drugs being sold, particularly ecstasy, which is popular in the rave and techno scenes.
Lang's remarks sparked immediate criticism. Phillippe de Villiers, a leader of the conservative Assembly for France, told the Irish Independent that Lang's remarks were "mind-boggling" and called for his "immediate departure."
Similarly, the Federation of Pupils' Parents accused Lang of failing to ensure the moral and civic education of the young. "A drug is still a drug and none is without danger," said the federation.
And the opposition UDF Party told the Independent that Lang seemed to be calling for legal ecstasy.
Lang has given no indication he plans to step down.
France lies on the harsh end of the European drug policy spectrum, making Lang's comments a breakthrough of sorts.
France has long criticized its Dutch neighbors for their lenient policies, even though they appear to be working better than the French approach. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, a European Union body, the prevalence of hard drug addicts in the Netherlands is 1.6 per thousand. In France, that number is 2.4 per thousand.
Britain, with some of the harshest drug laws in Europe, is least successful in preventing drug use, said the Centre.