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New consumer law 'lacks ambition'

Better protection for tenants, mobile users and online shoppers - but U-turn on plans to allow class actions

A NEW law that aims to protect customers from excessive bills and unfair commercial practices has been criticised by consumer groups for "lacking ambition".

The bill features 25 measures covering areas ranging from mobile phones and energy suppliers to renting a property and shopping online.

However, the government has decided not to go ahead with a key part of the proposed law, which would have allowed "class actions" in France - where consumers can sue a company collectively.

It was one of President Sarkozy's 2007 pledges and has been the subject of campaigning by consumer protection groups UFC-Que Choisir and CLCV.

Business minister Frédéric Lefebvre said he had changed his mind as a result of the economic crisis. He said class actions could have "dramatic consequences for the economy" and risked weakening French business.

UFC-Que Choisir said it could not understand why the law had been watered down. It said consumers would be forced to continue with "long legal procedures [individually] with no certainty of winning".

Among the measures that have made it into the draft law are fines for landlords who refuse to pay back a tenant's deposit within the legal two-month limit. They could be ordered to pay 10% of the monthly rent for every month that the refund is delayed.

Landlords could also be forced to cut the rent if they are found to have wrongly declared the surface area of the property.

Other measures include better warnings from mobile phone operators about a customer's spending, allowing phones to be unlocked after three months, and shorter notice periods for cancelling health insurance contracts.

All mobile phone operators would be required to offer at least one package without a minimum term contract and internet service providers would provide a "social tariff" for low-income families.

There would also be tougher measures on spam and higher fines for e-commerce sites that refuse to refund customers within the legal 30-day period.

The draft law will now go to the National Assembly's economic affairs committee in July before being debated by MPs and senators after the summer break. The government hopes it will be passed by the end of the year.

Photo: Sylvie Thenard - Fotolia.com

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