Original article in French published in Le Monde
Note: since the publication of this opinion article, the bill was entered in the National Assembly’s work agenda and adopted on 23 March. More information here.
On 30 March 2015, a law proposal of historical importance for the advancement of human and environmental rights was adopted on first reading by the French National Assembly (Lower House of French Parliament). The law proposal was none other than the French bill on duty of care of parent companies and contracting enterprises.
The proposal required large businesses to act responsibly (something they already claim to be doing). More specifically, it asked that companies implement a duty of care plan for their entire supply chain, including their subsidiaries and subcontractors, in France and worldwide.
A year later, the proposal has not yet left Parliament.
Last November, The French Senate publicly proclaimed its opposition to the law by repealing all its items. Now, it is again up to the National Assembly to conduct a second reading, but the bill is still absent from its work agenda. After three months of waiting, more stalling is no longer an acceptable way forward.
Broad popular support
Although not a Senate favourite (to say the least), the French bill receives great support from a wide number of parliamentarians who are determined to see through concrete legislation protecting the public interest. Likewise, the French Government has come out in favour of the legislation since November 2015, through its Secretary of State for Relations with the Parliament. And behind it also stands an unprecedentedly large coalition of civil society organisations, NGOs and trade unions.
In addition, the law proposal scores high with the general public. According to a survey conducted by a group of civil society organisations, three in four French people believe multinationals must be held legally accountable for the human and environmental impacts caused by their subsidiaries and subcontractors. What’s more, a petition asking the government to ensure the law’s implementation gained over 190,000 signatures.
Public outrage over human rights and environmental scandals remains strong in France. These scandals include the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, where more than a thousand workers producing garments for Western brands lost their lives. Or the sinking of the oil tanker Erika of the west coast of France, in December 1999, causing irreversible environmental damage.
Mandatory duty of care could prevent such tragedies and ensure employers are not exploiting their employees to keep production costs low.
A lone struggle no more
For the past year, a growing number of French business leaders have expressed support for the initiative, understanding its role in the global context of joint evolution towards greater responsibility for economic actors. The same can be said about the Forum for Responsible Investment, (Le Forum pour l’Investissement responsable), which brings together investors, fund managers and consultants.
And, if in the past France was afraid of being isolated in the struggle to make business responsible, it is no longer the case. Similar legislative initiatives have been launched in other European countries, including Switzerland and Germany.
The question which remains is: when will the proposal be entered into the work agenda of the National Assembly, and voted into law?
Mandatory duty of care would translate France’s business and human rights political speech and international commitments into practice. The initiative’s parliamentary review must be accelerated to allow its entry into force, and to avoid a new social or environmental scandal involving French companies.