PARIS - A leading environmental campaigner in France has appealed for a referendum on genetically modified foods, confident of a substantial vote against them.

Former environment minister Corinne Lepage, who now is president of the Cap 21 lobby group and of the Committee for Independent Information and Research on Genetic Engineering, launched a petition Dec. 1 that calls on President Jacques Chirac to offer the French people the possibility of expressing their views in a referendum.

Referring to the referendum that took place in Switzerland in June 1998, in which two-thirds of Swiss voters rejected a range of "genetic protection" measures that would have banned the production, utilization and distribution of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the award of any patents for transgenic animals or plants, and the dissemination of any GMOs in the environment, Lepage said that it had confused food-related issues with those linked to medical research and drug development. In France, she suggested, it would be enough to ask one simple question: "Are you for or against the marketing and cultivation of GMOs?"

Hitherto, the French government has refused to impose even a temporary ban on the planting of GM crops or on the sale of foods containing GM ingredients in France. Apart from its obligation to abide by the decisions of the European Union, it also has been concerned about penalizing French farmers. But farmers, like food processing companies in Europe, have had to bow to the realities of market forces; with French consumers overwhelmingly hostile to GM foods, farmers have decided not to produce any.

A measure of consumers' hostility to GM foods was provided by an opinion poll conducted in all 15 member countries of the European Union by the opinion research firm Eurobaromhtre last winter. Asked whether or not they were in favor of "encouraging the utilization of modern biotechnologies in food production," 66 percent of the French said they were not, as did 52 percent of Germans and 42 percent of Britons. A French government survey similarly found that one in two Frenchmen consider GMOs a danger to health.