Asbestos Profile: France
France was a major asbestos user throughout most of the 20th century; for decades it constituted one of the largest asbestos markets in continental Europe. For a short time, 20% of national asbestos consumption came from two French mines, however, by 1962 both mines had ceased operations. Between 1962 and the introduction of the national ban (1997), domestic demand for asbestos was satisfied by imported fiber, much of which came from Canada [Justice for Asbestos Victims and the Politics of Compensation: The French Experience]. While asbestos was used widely throughout many industrial sectors, the vast majority went into the manufacture of asbestos-cement products.
In 1931, Turner & Newall Ltd., a UK-owned asbestos manufacturer, seeking to avoid the newly introduced Asbestos Regulations in the UK, set up a friction material factory in Normandy to take advantage of the total lack of asbestos laws in France, a situation which continued for decades. In the 1970s, the government finally enacted decrees which set limits on some instances of occupational asbestos exposures; many other potential sources of hazardous exposures remained uncontrolled. French politicians and diplomats opposed attempts by the European Union to ban asbestos and, even as other European countries were introducing bans, asbestos consumption in France was 80 kilos per inhabitant [French Asbestos Legacy]. Asbestos remained a low government priority well into the 21st century [The French Government Continues to Fail Asbestos Victims]. In 2003, the French Government set off an international furore when it sent the asbestos-laden warship, Le Clemenceau, to India for scrapping [Le Clemenceau Comes Home!].
French multinationals, including Saint Gobain and Eternit, dominated the national asbestos debate. Working together, they devised successful strategies for preventing the introduction of government regulations and suppressing the publication of adverse scientific and medical findings; they commissioned spurious research and created a public relations body - the Permanent Asbestos Committee - to spread industry propaganda. Trade unionists, civil servants, consumers and medical professionals were just some of the groups targeted by the asbestos lobby.
The country's asbestos epidemic remained hidden until the 1996 publication of The Effects on Health of the Main Types of Exposure to Asbestos by the French Medical Research Council which calculated that more than 2,000 people a year were dying from asbestos cancer. The day after the report was published it was announced that asbestos would be banned as of January 1, 1997. This decision incensed Canadian asbestos stakeholders and a case was brought by Canada before the World Trade Organization; the WTO upheld the right of a national entity to protect public health by prohibiting the use and import of asbestos [WTO Upholds French Ban on Chrysotile!].
The social mobilization of victims, workers, academics and campaigners culminated with the formation of ANDEVA, the French National Association For The Defence of Victims of Asbestos (1995). Within nine years, there were 25 local ANDEVA branches with a total membership exceeding 8,000. ANDEVA has progressed ties with asbestos victims’ groups in Europe and further afield. In October 2012, it organized two days of asbestos action in Paris including a conference entitled: An International Day for Asbestos Victims, a workshop and a public demonstration [Storming the Asbestos Barricades]. ANDEVA has been targeted by asbestos vested interests including the (Canadian) Chrysotile Institute which in 2009 mounted a lawsuit against ANDEVA personnel [Victory for French Victims' Group].
Working with specialist lawyers, ANDEVA has transformed the legal climate for asbestos compensation claims [Legal Victories for Asbestos Victims in France]. Fearing an avalanche of asbestos litigation, the government set up a national indemnification fund in 2000 (FIVA) to pay asbestos claims [The Asbestos Dossier and French Supreme Court Hears Asbestos Claim].
Updated August 2013