French state not responsible for air pollution-related health problems, says court

A French court has ruled that the state is not responsible for a woman and her daughter's claims of respiratory problems due to air polution around Paris. Though it did say that the state has not done enough to limit air pollution. Activists say this sets a precedent for other environment cases making their way through the courts.

Cars on the peripherique, the ring round that surrounds Paris, which is usually full of polluting traffic. The plaintiffs in the case lived nearby during a spike in air pollution in December 2016.
Cars on the peripherique, the ring round that surrounds Paris, which is usually full of polluting traffic. The plaintiffs in the case lived nearby during a spike in air pollution in December 2016. Philippe Lopez/AFP

This is the first ruling on a case brought by individuals against the French state over health problems caused by air pollution.

A 52-year-old woman filed a complaint saying the state had not done enough to limit air pollution in and around Paris between 2012 and 2016, and notably during a spike in fine particle pollution December 2016.

The woman contracted bronchitis and her daughter contracted asthma when they were living in Saint Ouen, just outside the peripherique ring road that surrounds Paris, which is often clogged with traffic.

Paris has seen spikes in pollution, especially during heat waves, and Paris has implemented measures, including temporary vehicle bans in the city.

But the administrative court of Montreuil ruled on Tuesday that the measures were not enough, and the state also has a responsibility to intervene to prevent pollution from rising above legal thresholds.

The European Commission took France and six other countries to the European Court of Justice in May 2018 for failing to implement steps to meet EU air quality levels.

France has problems with airborne fine particles as and high levels nitrogen dioxide, which in some cities are more than double EU limits.

Responsible, but not guilty

While the Montreuil court found the state shoudl do more to address air pollution, it rejected the plaintiffs' claim for compensation, saying they had not provided enough evidence to establish a direct link between the air pollution and their health problems.

“The court is asking for additional elements,” explained their lawyer, Francois Lafforgue, to RFI. Even though the court rejected the claim, the fact that it recognised that the state’s responsibility in fighting air polution is a first step.

But environmental lawyer Arnaud Gossement says there is no positive spin on this ruling.

"You just need to read the ruling, on the last page it says the plea is rejected," he told RFI. "The court recognises just one issue: the inadequacy of a regional plan to prevent air pollution. It does not say that the plan is bad, just that it is insufficient."

A regressive ruling, says lawyer

Not only was the French state not convicted, it was exonerated.

Arnaud Gossement, environmental lawyer

The inadquacy of the state's plans against air polution have already been higlighted by the French Council of State which ruled in 2017 that the state should do more.

"There is nothing new," says Gossement, about Tuesday's court ruling. "Plus, the court refuses to recognise that the state has an obligation of results in terms of air pollution."

For him, this ruling lets the state off the hook in terms of its obligations.

"We must hope that the European judge will be much more severe towards the state than this court in Montreuil," he said.

Activists say dozens of other cases against the state from individuals are making their way through the courts, and this case could be a precedent.

Olivier Blond, president of the Respire association which supported the plaintiffs in the case, says he hopes it also serves as a call to action, for citizens, and the state: “We hope it will invite other citizens, other victims of air pollution, to join this legal fight,” he said, adding that most importantly, “we hope it will incite the state to put in place much stronger action plans to fight against air pollution.”

(Additional reporting from Agnes Rougier)

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