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A U.S. tradition, with a French twist

After lobbying French government officials and parliamentarians for four years, lawyer Gaëlle Patetta is achingly close to her goal: legislation that would permit U.S.-style class-action lawsuits in France.

After lobbying French government officials and parliamentarians for four years, lawyer  Gaëlle Patetta  is achingly close to her goal: legislation that would permit U.S.-style class-action lawsuits in France.

As the legal director of Paris-based Union Fédérale des Consommateurs­Que Choisir -- France's largest consumer rights group -- since 2001, Patetta has complained endlessly in the domestic press and in countless meetings with politicians that the country's consumers and small shareholders are being fleeced. "What happens in France is a company can be found guilty of systematic abuse, yet most victims get nothing," says Patetta, 34, a native of the southern city of Tarbes.

She finally hit pay dirt in January, when French President Jacques Chirac came out in favor of class-action lawsuits. Last month, Patetta joined a 17-person government commission charged with drafting the new law by October.

Has Chirac decided to take up the consumer cause? Not if you ask most French political pundits, who believe Chirac was motivated to support the UFC­Que Choisir campaign because his main rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, won political mileage last year by supporting the group's initiatives. Either way, the move is likely to lend momentum to efforts to introduce similar class-action laws in the European Union. Currently, only Britain and Sweden permit such suits. Ironically, the U.S. is moving in the opposite direction: President George W. Bush is trying to rein in what he sees as a culture of litigation run rampant.

Some French business leaders fear the same for their country. "On our committee there are at least four members from business and employer associations who are opposed to change," says Patetta. "But with clear support from the president, I am optimistic we can deliver a new law with teeth."