The Vigilance Act: a first legal action has been initiated in France
The very first legal action under the French Act No. 2017-399 of 27 March 2017 on the duty of vigilance of mother companies and multinationals or principals, also known as the "Potier Act" or “Vigilance Act”, has been brought.
This statute requires large French companies to prevent social, environmental, safety and health risks as well as human right violations related to their operations, those of their subsidiaries, subcontractors and suppliers.
This act was passed in 2017, in response to the scandal of the collapse of the "Rana Plaza" building in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 workers in the textile industry in 2013.
This statute has high application thresholds : a company is subject to this Act if it employs, at the close of two consecutive fiscal years, at least 5,000 employees within the company and in its direct or indirect subsidiaries whose registered office is located in France, or at least 10,000 employees within the company and in its direct or indirect subsidiaries whose registered office is located in France or abroad.
Several companies have already been subject to formal notices under the Vigilance Act since its adoption. In particular, EDF was recently given formal notice for human rights violations regarding a project of its subsidiary "EDF Energies nouvelles" in Mexico. A new action may therefore be brought before the French judge in the coming months.
The French oil and gaz compant, Total, is the first company to be sued under the Vigilance Act. "Les Amis de la Terre", "Survie" and four Ugandan NGOs have filed a complaint with the French courts, claiming that the oil company Total is not complying with the recent law on the duty of vigilance. These charges against Total concern an oil project in Uganda in which Total is a shareholder, and the future 1,400 km oil pipeline that will transport oil from Uganda to Tanzania. The NGOs denounce notably insufficient compensation and pressure on the expropriated populations.
In their summons, the associations claim, firstly, that Total's vigilance plan does not comply with the requirements of the law and, secondly, that the vigilance measures developed by Total are insufficient to avoid the risks and/or not effectively implemented.
The hearing against Total took place on December 12, 2019 before the Tribunal de Grande Instance of Nanterre. Judgment is expected to be rendered on January 30, 2020.