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Former Socialist Party leader charged in asbestos scandal

Former French Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry said Wednesday that she had been charged in connection with an asbestos scandal linked to thousands of deaths when she served at the labour ministry 25 years ago.


Martine Aubry, a prominent politician tipped to become France's first female prime minister, has been charged with manslaughter in a probe into thousands of deaths caused by exposure to asbestos.

Aubry, who recently stood down as leader of the ruling Socialist Party, is seen as one of the favourites to take over from Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault should President Francois Hollande opt to fire his under-fire premier.

But her political future is now clouded by uncertainty following the decision by an examining magistrate to charge her as part of a wider investigation into alleged state negligence in relation to asbestos exposure.

Her lawyers on Wednesday initiated legal proceedings aimed at having the charge against her dismissed and she angrily refuted any suggestion she had been guilty of minimising the health threat posed by asbestos.

"A finger is being pointed at those who wanted to protect (workers), instead of the companies who exposed them and blatantly breached the law," Aubry told AFP.

The case against Aubry relates to her time as a senior official in the ministry of social affairs, before she became a major figure in French politics.

As the ministry's director of industrial relations from 1984-87, Aubry is accused of having helped to delay the implementation in France of a 1983 European Union directive designed to strengthen the protection of workers dealing with asbestos.

The examining magistrate in the case believes Aubry bowed to pressure from industrialists lobbying against a complete ban on the use of the material and that she ignored warnings from French health authorities of a mushrooming epidemic of cancers and terminal lung diseases.

Aubry, the daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, has found herself caught up in a far-reaching probe into how the French authorities handled the emerging evidence of the dangers posed by asbestos between 1970 and 1997, when the material was finally banned.

The specific charges against her relate to the case of workers employed at the Fereo-Valeo auto-components factory in Normandy. Asbestos was once widely used for car brake pads.

An estimated 3,000 people currently die prematurely every year in France as a result of asbestos poisoning and there have been pessimistic predictions that the death rate could nearly treble over the next decade because of exposure in the 70s and 80s.


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