Fighting the good fight against inflated prices, lying ads … and stale sausage

Patrick Middleton has been talking to François Robert, deputy head of the DDCCRF in Nice, the body which exists to protect consumers’ interests

The name’s a mouthful, certainly: la Direction départementale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes, or, in the official English version, “the departmental directorate for competition, consumer affairs and fraud control”. “Yes, it’s quite a long name,” agreed François Robert, “but we’ve got a wide brief and our title tries to indicate that.” So what’s the job of the men and women based at 35 avenue Thiers in Nice and at similar offices in each of France’s ninety-six departments? “To put it at its simplest our task is to identify and eliminate any commercial practice which aims to distort the market or abuse the trust of consumers.”

About a million investigations a year

To make this clear François Robert took each part of his administration’s title and explained what it meant. “Let’s start with competition. For over twenty years now prices have been freely fixed by traders, earlier they were supervised by the government. This opens the way for abusive agreements between firms which are harmful to the consumer. We monitor prices very carefully and we intervene if something seems not as it should be. Some sectors – banking, real estate, for example – get special attention. Consumer affairs covers a wide range of abuses. Misleading advertising, for example, which can sometimes be very effective in fooling potential clients. Fraud, as we use the word, covers a very broad spectrum from selling toys which are dangerous – we pay a lot of attention to that – to offering food products which can be damaging to human health. What it boils down to is detecting and preventing the offer of goods and services which in some way do not give the consumer what he or she has a right to expect.”

That sounds like a very comprehensive mission. “That’s right and we can’t be every-where all the time but the knowledge that we’re out there looking for dodgy pricing, bogus claims, dirty kitchens and the rest has a dissuasive effect. Across France we carry out about a million investigations a year. As you might expect, in some areas we work very closely with other administrations. To illustrate that, regarding the traffic in fake goods we collaborate with the Customs and the gendarmerie. Last year we broke up a big racket in the Var involving fake perfumes. In some cases we link up with our counterparts in other EU countries, such as the UK’s Office of Fair Trading. But there are limits to what we can do. For instance, we can’t enter private homes – whatever we might suspect – only business premises, and then there’s not much we can do for victims of eBay scams if the site in question is outside of France.”

Things are getting better

I took up with François Robert a couple of cases of consumer abuse. One very personal: when I needed a plumber in the middle of the night a while ago I couldn’t get a single one of those advertising a 24/24 service in the Yellow Pages to come out (several didn’t even answer the phone). “Had you lodged a complaint about any particular plumber we would have first checked if this failure to honour the 24/24 claim was habitual or just a one-off and also we’d look to see if he was staffed to provide such cover. Our findings could possibly allow us to get him for misleading advertising.” Then a locally notorious case: a woman, bereft of any qualification or necessary licences, offers a removals service and then steals some of the property entrusted to her as well as charging her clients for non-existent insurance. “Sounds bad. On the theft issue you’d need to call in the police or gendarmerie. But we could investigate her for illicitly practising a regulated profession and also on the insurance issue.”

What can victims do in cases like this? “To start with send a registered letter of complaint to the trader in question and see what happens. If you get no response come to us. Sometimes we’ll handle the matter directly, in some instances we’ll point you to other possibilities (see below). If we take on the case we send in an investigator and if this report justifies our continued intervention we’ll send a warning letter. If this has no effect we’ll issue a procès-verbal and refer the matter to the public prosecutor and that can mean a police enquiry and eventual charges. When cases come to court there’s a definite deterrent effect on other offenders. We’re involved in a long struggle but I’d say things are getting better.”

Two brochures are available in English: Common Consumer Disputes looks at a range of customer grievances and appropriate ways of dealing with them; Price Information looks at the rules on pricing and what’s allowed, what isn’t. These are available in return for a stamped addressed envelope from DDCCRF, 35 avenue Thiers, 06000 Nice or go to www.dgccrf.bercy.gouv.fr (click on English) and download them directly.


From Riviera Reporter Issue 128: Aug/Sept 2008

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