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French consumers try to overturn class action ban


PARIS—A French consumer association is bringing a mass lawsuit in a bid to highlight what it considers to be deficiencies in the country's judicial system and as part of a campaign for the introduction of class action-style lawsuits.

Against the backdrop of a presidential campaign in France, the group has announced plans to file 11,582 price-fixing complaints against three major cellular telephone operators, to highlight what it regards as an overly complex process that consumers must follow to achieve justice in France.

Consumer organization the Union Federale des Consommateurs-Que Choisir will file its action in Paris' commercial court about the same time that Parliament is expected to begin debate in October on a controversial bill that would allow certain types of class action suits. French law currently does not permit class actions, but consumer associations can file collective complaints over products or services.

The UFC seeks e700,000 ($898,450) in compensation for customers overcharged during 2000 to 2002 by mobile phone giants Orange S.A., SFR and Bouygues Telecom as a result of the networks' alleged collusion to fix prices and market share, for which they were fined a combined e534 million ($685.4 million) last December by France's competition watchdog, the Conseil de la Concurrence. The operators' appeal of that ruling is pending. "Since those fines go directly into government coffers, we want compensation for the consumers who were overcharged," said Gaelle Patetta, the UFC's legal director.

The UFC also seeks e500,000 ($641,750) for its own costs.

"We're only seeking an average of e60 ($77) per complaint, but a successful action would dissuade companies from trampling on customers' rights," said Ms. Patetta.

"Most importantly, we want to demonstrate that the (current) process poses many hurdles for consumers to get justice," she said. "For this action, we will need a small truck to carry all the required customer identification papers, telephone bills and contracts, all in multiple copies, to the court. A clerk will have to enter it all into the record, and a judge has to personally examine all 12,000 dossiers."

Proposed by French President Jacques Chirac, the class action bill has been significantly toned down in the face of impassioned objections by the business association Mouvement des Entreprises de France.

The proposed bill would create a two-phase process in which judges could hear class action complaints covering only consumer goods linked to a contract, and only those filed by government-approved consumer organizations.

If a judge determines "professional fault", individual plaintiffs would then have to individually negotiate with the company for compensation, then personally appear before the judge if the company refuses to settle.