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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: L’amiante attend son procès

by Fanny Doumayrou

France: Still Waiting to Put Asbestos on Trial.

Translated Thursday 5 October 2006

DEMONSTRATION. Thousand of asbestosis victims demonstrated last Saturday in Paris against the heads of companies they used to work for, demanding that those responsible be put on trial.

“We Demand Justice!” “We Refuse to Forget!”: Like the year before, several thousand people (6-7,000 according to the organizers) marched Saturday afternoon to demand “a criminal lawsuit against the asbestos corporations” and better compensation for the victims. Called by the National Association of the Victims of Asbestosis (ANDEVA) and supported by the two largest trade union federations, the CGT and the CFDT, the demonstration started in front of the Montparnasse Tower, a symbolic spot since the Tower is packed with asbestos, then proceeded to the de Fontenoy Square, close to the Ministry of Health, where they released white balloons in memory of all the workers who died as a result of working with asbestos.

The “widows of Dunkirk” led of the march. They have been active since the end of 2004, holding high the photos of their husbands who had died from asbestos. Demonstrators came from the four corners of France, employees of the national electricity grid (EDF), of the rail system (SNCF), of the metallurgical and steel industries (Renault, Sollac and the shipyards), with many coming from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region and from Saint-Nazaire. They held up placards with their demands: “Those who poisoned us must be brought to trial”, “Early retirement is a right, not a privilege”, and “No concessions on compensation”. Representatives of the Belgian Association of Victims of Asbestosis (ABEVA) recalled that asbestosis was an international issue. “We have the same problems, but we are still in the Stone Age with respect to compensation. We are still waiting for a compensation fund to be set up”, explained Eric Jonkheere, vice-president of the Association. Asbestosis killed his father, an engineer who worked for Eternit at Kapelle-au-bois, but also his mother and brother, because the whole family lived near the plant.

The demonstrators demand criminal proceedings

With this second national demonstration, ANDEVA, the group that uncovered the scandal of asbestosis ten years ago, wants to obtain a criminal trial, like the tainted blood trial, that would bring into the open the chain of responsibilities in this scandal, which, by 2025, will provoke the death of 100,000 people: they want to see industrialists, public servants, employers, prevention services charged with criminal offenses. Even if civil courts have already provided victims with compensation, and the employers’ “inexcusable fault” has been recognized, no charge as yet been laid in criminal court. Michel Parigot, vice-president of ANDEVA, mentioned reasons for being optimistic: “Thanks to our mobilization, we have advanced considerably since last year. Public Health advocates now have the means to take legal action.” Legal proceedings which had been going nowhere for ten years are now being reopened. Thirty-five judicial inquiries are currently being investigated by the Paris Public Health authorities, 20 will be opened in the weeks to come” Michel Parigot said, citing the recent condemnation of Alstom and the hearing of the directors of Valeo-Ferodo.

Asbestos: a continuing problem

Michel Parigot emphasized that asbestos is not only a problem of the past. Asbestos was massively used in construction up to the 1980s. “People exposed to asbestos today are the victims of tomorrow”, he deplored. “Two-thirds of sites where they are taking out the asbestos are contravening the current regulations. In spite of this, the Administration does nothing to control the operation of these sites. The political will is lacking.” Another scandal concerns the standards of companies working in asbestos removal. “The Administration has allowed the profession to set its own standards”, accused Michel Parigot. “The president of the commission in charge of setting these standards is himself the director of a large asbestos removal company.”

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