Duty of vigilance in France: an important step forward despite contrasting decisions

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Today, the new dedicated chamber of the Paris Court of Appeal handed down its first three decisions on the basis of the French Law on the Duty of Vigilance. While the legal action brought against the Suez Group was declared inadmissible, the positive decisions in the Total/Climate and EDF/Mexico cases represent an important step forward for the duty of vigilance. These two cases can now be examined on their merits.

Paris, 18 June 2024. The Paris Court of Appeal has declared inadmissible the case brought in 2021 by FIDH, Observatorio Ciudadano, Red Ambiental de Osorno and the Ligue des droits de l’Homme against Suez on the grounds of the French law on the Duty of Vigilance. This legal action followed a major health crisis that took place in the town of Osorno in Chile in 2019, attributable to the negligence of one of the Suez Group’s subsidiaries. The associations criticised the company for failing to take the necessary measures to prevent this crisis and the human rights abuses that followed.

"Obviously, we deplore the inadmissibility of our action and the fact that the Suez case cannot be examined on its merits. However, this is a great day for the duty of vigilance in France. The rulings in the Total/Climate and EDF/Mexico cases clarify the conditions for implementing the law," said Maddalena Neglia, Director of FIDH’s Business, Human Rights and Environment Desk.

In the Suez case, the judges did not rule on the issue of formal notice and considered that the entity targeted within the group was not the correct one. However, they noted that the company itself had not clarified which entity was liable for the duty of vigilance.

"These obstacles to identifying the right entity to summon have been made even more complex by the later restructurings of Suez SA, which became Vigie Groupe before being acquired by Veolia. One can fear that this decision will allow some business groups to maintain a certain opacity in their corporate structures or to resort to other ways to evade their responsibilities," stated Julie Février and Florian Curral-Stephen, lawyers for FIDH.

In July 2019, the residents of Osorno in Chile were deprived of water for ten days and a health emergency was declared due to contamination of the drinking water network following another operating incident at Essal. This company, controlled by Suez, had already been accused by the Chilean authorities of a number of malfunctions and ongoing failures. FIDH and its partners in the action had taken Suez to court in 2021, after a formal notice in 2020 and unsuccessful dialogue in an attempt to obtain a new vigilance plan and prevent a repetition of the Osorno facts.

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