French Protesters Urge Nationwide Anti-Asbestos Lawsuit

October 3, 2006

Thousands of protesters gathered this past weekend at a landmark Paris tower once lined with asbestos to demand a nationwide lawsuit against those who allowed workers to be exposed to the hazardous substance.

Relatives of workers who died or suffer from asbestos-linked lung ailments led the march from Montparnasse Tower toward the Health Ministry. Some 3,100 people from around France took part, according to police.

Many carried photos of deceased family members, under a banner reading, “Our poisoners must be prosecuted without delay.”

The protesters were demanding a large-scale lawsuit that would draw nationwide attention to the consequences of asbestos exposure. Organizers said 3,000 people in France die each year from asbestos-related disease, though no official numbers are available.

Asbestos was systematically used in French buildings and manufacturing into the 1970s, and was only formally banned in 1997.

“I want there to be justice,” said Laetitia Potrier, whose husband died in April at age 53 of lung ailments, leaving her alone with their 11-year-old son.

“My husband was replaced the day after his death. We feel like Kleenex, so I’m protesting today so that he didn’t die for nothing,” she said.

A leading judge who considers public health-related cases, Marie Odile Bertella-Geffroy, was quoted in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper as saying such a large-scale suit would be difficult because of the challenge of finding solid proof and the different legal norms in place at the time of exposure.

At least two cases this month have implicated large companies in asbestos-related damages. A court in northern France fined Alstom Power Boiler for exposing employees to asbestos. And a court in Clermont-Ferrand in the south is hearing four lawsuits accusing tire giant Michelin of negligence for exposing its workers to dangerous levels of the substance.

Experts determined last year that the 60-story Montparnasse Tower, a magnet for tourists looking for panoramic views of the City of Light, had asbestos hidden above false ceilings and in a shaft housing cables and elevators. The office building, which pokes high above the low Paris skyline and which many consider an eyesore, is undergoing gradual asbestos removal.

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