En Toute Franchise (en-toutefranchise.com) claims its investigations since 1994 have uncovered abuses by all large chains, including shopping centres built without planning permission, or exceeding their allowed surface areas.
Its €418bn figure represents what it says should have been paid if fines had been applied per day. “It’s as if you kept going through red lights every day,” said founder Martine Donnette.
While the organisation is based in Paca in the south and has focussed on that region, they believe the situation to be similar across France.
They are demanding a parliamentary enquiry and have collected 46,000 signatures.
Ms Donnette, a former shopkeeper, said: “There are two aspects to our work: firstly opposing new developments, because there are enough; we are world champions for surface area of hypermarkets. The other is unfair competition because they construct surface area without permission. We denounce the fact the authorities don’t do anything to crack down.
“We have had some successes by going to court, but whereas the state could do it straight away, for us it takes years, and our members’ money.”
She added: “They’ve always more or less corrupted the local politicians; there’s blackmail over jobs, lying and cheating. For example, projects not respecting the PLU [local plan, designating potential usage of land], or the risk prevention plan, and officials just let it go.
“Even when they’ve not actually broken the law they connive with the authorities. For constructions of more than 10,000m2 firms must have an environmental impact study. At one site they wanted to build 30,000m2 so they cut it into five applications. But that can only happen with complicity of councillors and officials.” Those in power often benefit in some way via companies they own, or selling land, she claimed.
Not only is France remarkable for its number and size of hypermarkets, but it has a conspicuous problem with small shops closing in town centres, she said.
“Whether it be Sarkozy, Hollande or Macron, when he was Economy Minister, they’ve removed a lot of laws that helped create equilibrium between big chains and independent shops.”
Ms Donnette said their supporters have been lobbying candidates during recent elections to demand a parliamentary enquiry.
“When the new MPs are elected we will send our petition to all the group presidents,” she added.
The association has had recent success at Châteauneuf-les-Martigues, Bouches-du-Rhône, where it alleges a supermarket has exceeded its permitted surface area. “We took legal action to oblige the prefecture to check on their surface area. Until now they always refused.”