French Travesty of Justice
Last Friday (February 8, 2013), the Paris Court of Appeal dismissed the criminal case against Claude Chopin, the 64-year old owner of Amisol, a company which operated an asbestos textile factory in the French town of Clermont-Ferrand. Chopin, who had taken over the management of the company from his Father in 1974, had been indicted in 1999 on charges of poisoning and murder. The Court of Appeal decision found that as it was not possible to establish that the hazardous exposures which resulted in the asbestos diseases suffered by the seven claimants took place whilst Claude Chopin was in charge; there is no prima facie case. Furthermore, the Court ruled, it is not appropriate to judge the occupational hygiene standards of the 1970s by stringent regulations implemented more recently.
Former Amisol workers, who have been fighting for over thirty years for justice, are incensed by the verdict. Victims' leader Josette Roudaire says that the state of knowledge regarding the asbestos hazard was most definitely known by the Labor Inspectorate by 1967 and that the company's failure to act was negligent. According to plaintiffs' counsel Jean-Paul Teissonniere, there has been a misunderstanding by the Court of regulation and scientific knowledge of the time. The Appeal Court's legal analysis is, he says inconsistent with that found in the trial record.1
The notorious Amisol factory in Clermont-Ferrand was the birthplace of the French ban asbestos movement. From 1910-1974, when the plant closed, thousands of workers were exposed to asbestos. When manufacturing ceased, without any negotiation or warnings, the premises were occupied by the workforce, many of whom were women. Professor Annie Thebaud-Mony describes what happened next:
The workers argued that the factory could be reopened with some improvements in working conditions. At that time, the respiratory illnesses and many fatalities among workers were worrisome issues, but seen as less important than the reopening of the factory. The overarching issue was the economic security for the 250 families who were threatened by the closing of the plant. The workers were not aware of the extent of the health hazards related to asbestos...
Two years later, while the factory was still occupied, the scientific workers of Jussieu University joined in the battle against asbestos. They formed a task group to press for the removal of asbestos on the campus (at the time, the largest concentration of sprayed asbestos in Europe). The solidarity between the Jussieu scientific workers and the Amisol workers allowed the latter to be informed about the health issues with asbestos, and to come to the realization that the illnesses and deaths of several of their colleagues were due to asbestos. This caused the Amisol workers who were occupying the factory to modify their demands. The issue was no longer simply to reopen the factory. Now they demanded re-employment in other workplaces in the region or, if that was not possible, early retirement benefits. They also demanded free medical examinations and follow-up medical care. Lastly, they sought salary compensation equivalent to the minimum salary for all the former Amisol employees. The occupation went on for nine years, diminished only by the deaths of some of the workers, and by the toll of health problems arising as a result of their work at Amisol.2
In 2005, the French Senate published a 333-page report on asbestos which disclosed that 35,000 asbestos deaths had occurred between 1965 and 1995 and that another 60,000-100,000 could occur by 2020. The Senate called the country's asbestos cancer epidemic inescapable and irreversible. And yet in 2013, no one is guilty. The Amisol workers from Clermont-Ferrand deserve better; the people of France deserve better.3 The struggle continues.
February 11, 2013
1 Armand M. Amiante: le non-lieu dans l'affaire Amisol ravive la "colère" des anciens salariés.
[Asbestos: the non-case in the Amisol case enrages former employees.] February 9, 2103.
2 Thebaud-Mony A. Empowerment of Victims and their Families in France. Paper submitted to the Global Asbestos Congress 2004. http://worldasbestosreport.org/conferences/gac/gac2004/PL3-10.php
3 Kazan-Allen L. French Asbestos Legacy. October 28, 2005.