On October 19, 2017, the French Competition Authority (the “FCA”) imposed a EUR 302 million fine on the three leading companies in the PVC and linoleum floor coverings sector; Forbo, Gerflor and Tarkett, as well as the industry’s trade association, SFEC (Syndicat Français des Enducteurs Calandreurs et Fabricants de Revêtements de Sols et Murs), for price-fixing, sharing commercially sensitive information, and signing a non-compete agreement relating to environmental performance advertising.
The FCA said the significant fine reflected the gravity of the offence and the long duration of the anticompetitive behavior, which for one company lasted 23 years.
The proceedings were originally initiated by unannounced inspections carried out in the floor coverings industry in 2013 by the FCA, acting on information submitted by the DGCCRF (Directorate General for Competition Policy, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control), which resulted in the discovery of three distinct anticompetitive practices.
The FCA found that the three main manufacturers of floor coverings in France met secretly at so-called “1, 2, 3” meetings, from October 2001 to September 2011, at hotels, on the margins of official meetings of the SFEC or through dedicated telephone lines, in order to discuss minimum prices and price increases for their products. The manufacturers also entered into agreements covering a great deal of other sensitive information, such as the strategies to adopt with regard to specific customers or competitors, organization of sales activities and sampling of new products.
Confidential information exchange via the trade association
The FCA found that from 1990 until the start of the FCA’s investigations in 2013, Forbo, Gerflor and Tarkett also exchanged, in the context of official meetings of the SFEC, very precise information relating to their trading volumes, revenues per product category and business forecasts. In its decision, the FCA also raised the active role played by the SFEC, supporting companies in their conduct.
Non-compete agreement relating to environmental performance advertising
The three main manufacturers of floor coverings in France, together with the trade association, also signed a ‘non-compete’ agreement which prevented each company from advertising the individual environmental performance of its products. The FCA considered that this agreement may have acted as a disincentive for manufacturers to innovate and offer new products, earmarked by better environmental performance, compared to the products offered by their competitors.
Neither the manufacturers nor the trade association disputed the facts and all of them sought a settlement procedure. In addition, Forbo and Tarkett, leniency applicants, benefited from fine reductions corresponding to the respective dates they approached the FCA (the sooner, the higher the fine reduction), the quality of the evidence they provided and their cooperation during the investigation.
WHAT THIS MEANS
The FCA’s decision in the floor coverings cartel case has significant impact due to the total amount of the fines imposed which is (i) higher than the aggregate amount of sanctions imposed by the FCA in 2016 (i.e., EUR 202,873,000), and (ii) until now the highest fine imposed by the FCA in 2017, the FCA having imposed a EUR 100 million fine on Engie for abusing its dominant position in the gas market (Decision No. 17-D-06 of 21 March 2017) and a EUR 40 million fine on Altice and SFR for non-compliance with an agreement made during the acquisition of SFR by the Altice group (Decision No. 17-D-04 of 8 March 2017).
This decision is the first application of the new settlement procedure introduced by the Macron Law of 6 August 2015. This new procedure replaced the previous “no challenge” procedure (“non-contestation des griefs”) pursuant to which companies could only negotiate a percentage reduction without knowing the original amount of the fine. Under the new procedure, the companies’ discussion with the FCA will focus directly on the minimum and maximum amount of the fine and will no longer be limited to a reduction rate applicable to a hypothetical amount of the fine.
This is also the first decision in France where the new settlement procedure and the leniency procedure have been cumulated.
Finally, the FCA raised the very serious nature of the infringement, which lasted for a long time and involved the majority of the market players (between 65% and 85% of the market from 2001 until 2012). This decision sends once again a clear message to companies that cartels and exchanges of competitively sensitive information remain one of FCA’s main priorities. Therefore, discussions in the context of trade association meetings should be approached carefully and in accordance with prior legal advice.