Duty of Care Law: French Constitutional Council gives the green light
In its much-awaited decision on March 23, the French constitutional council has given a green light to the “Duty of Care” law (Devoir de Vigilance) although they stated that there remain some provisions to the French constitution.
The major points of the law, requiring French companies with at least 5 000 employees, including in their French direct or indirect subsidiaries (or 10 000 employees in their direct or indirect subsidiaries worldwide) to develop a diligence plan (“plan de vigilance”), are recognized of general interest. The intent is for the diligence plans to prevent serious risks related to human rights and fundamental freedoms, health and safety of persons and the environment. The constitutional council considers however that the sanctions initially included in the law violate the constitutional principle that penalties must have a sound legal basis. As a result, the civil fine of up to €10 million, as well as its increase to €30 million in case of damages that could have been prevented by implementing the diligence plan, are removed from the law.
The obligation of implementing a diligence plan however, as well as the formal notice and the civil liability mechanisms in case of lack or deficiency of the diligence plan, are constitutional. Consequently, companies are still compelled to implement a diligence plan, even if the law loses some of its deterrent effect, which makes for the first law of this type: it introduces an obligation much more stringent than a mere reporting obligation, such as the ones required by the UK Modern Slavery Act or the California Transparency Act. Companies are required to implement specific concrete actions and cannot limit themselves to reporting on what they do (or do not do).
There are also some talks of developing similar regulations at European Union level. Eight national parliaments have called for a corporate duty of care towards the human rights and local environment impacted by the company’s operations. They have jointly proposed that the European Commission take action on this matter. This shows that the French “Duty of care” law is indeed the first step of a generalized global movement requiring companies to address their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) risks, including throughout their supply chain.