Sustainable development is conceptualized in this paper as a serious challenge for governance structures and processes in nation states. Global and European agreements have placed the inclusion of civil society actors in policy-making at the heart of the sustainability agenda. This commitment is particularly evident in the Commission's White Paper on Governance and the EU Sustainable Development Strategy. From this perspective, the European Commission has consistently underlined the integral role of dialogue with social partners in any sustainability agenda. In contrast, there is a clear mismatch between these principles of civil society inclusion and policy-making in France. Long-standing traditions of meso-corporatism have struggled to adapt to extending participation to civil society actors. This paper assesses the implementation of sustainable development as civil society inclusion with reference to the French experience in dealing with EU biodiversity policy. It is argued that this governance challenge has effectively presented nation states with an ‘interpretation dilemma’ with regards to sustainable development. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.