A new approach to the procedural structure of collective consumer lawsuits in France has been a metaphorical sea snake—we have seen the idea of implementation of class actions in our legal system appearing and disappearing mysteriously for quite a long time now.
Under French law, an association can represent the collective interests of consumers; however, each claimant must be individually named in the lawsuit, which is not at all similar to the class actions system existing in the U.S. On January 4, 2005, President Chirac urged changes that would provide greater consumer protection. A draft bill was proposed in April 2006, and discussed both in Parliament and in the media.
The main provisions of the draft bill were as follows:
- The court would decide whether to allow an action brought by an association on behalf of consumers (which must be comprised of at least two individuals) for goods purchased under a standard contract;
- Attorneys could not initiate a class action;
- After such an action is brought, the association would be entitled to identify additional consumers for a one-month period;
- The court would determine the damages that must be awarded to the consumers who have opted-in to the proceedings;
- Damages would be limited to €2,000; and
- Contingent fees for attorneys would be barred.
Obviously this was a very limited attempt to introduce class actions in the French law: only consumers associations were entitled to initiate them, and their scope was in fact limited to very small consumer cases. Nevertheless, the bill was withdrawn in January 2007.
In 2007, the newly elected President Sarkozy asked Minister of Justice Rachida Dati to work on the class actions implementation. Class actions were actually included in the 2008 draft bill set to modernize the French economy, but these provisions were withdrawn before the vote of the said law.
Another draft bill about class actions was introduced in 2009 before the Parliament by a group of MPs who are members of the socialist party, but it was dismissed by the Senate by a vote that took place on June 24, 2010.
The government had since then announced a new draft bill aimed to improve the protection of consumers, which would include a class actions system.
However, on June 6, 2011, the government presented the said draft, that will soon be added on the agenda of the Parliament, and it appears class actions have been deleted by the Ministers’ Council. Moreover, Frédéric Lefebvre, in his presentation, expressly mentioned that implementing class actions was no longer a priority for the government.
The class actions issue will probably surface again during the campaigns of the candidates running for presidency in 2012.
To date, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and Portugal have all implemented some sort of class actions in their own legal systems, and the European Commission initiated a public consultation on February 4, 2011, “Towards a Coherent European Approach to Collective Redress.”