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Paul François, the French farmer taking on Monsanto

Thibaud Moritz, AFP | Paul François at his farm in France's rural Charente region on July 28, 2015

Paul François, a farmer from France’s rural Charente region, is seeking more than €1 million in damages from Monsanto, arguing that use of the company’s Lasso weed killer has left him disabled.

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Paul François is exhausted, but “determined”, according to his lawyer François Lafforgue.

The 54-year-old farmer was due in court in the eastern city of Lyon on Wednesday for the fourth round of his legal battle against Monsanto, which became a subsidiary of German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG in 2018. It may be François’ last chance at holding the company accountable for his disabilities, which he claims were caused by its Lasso weed killer, a product that his since been banned in France.

Shortly before leaving for Lyon, François appeared calm. “After 12 years of legal proceedings, I’ve had moments of doubt. But I am confident now because the court has already ruled in our favour on several occasions,” he told FRANCE 24.

François won his first trial against Monsanto at the court in Lyon in 2012, and again on appeal in 2015. But in 2017, the company succeeded in overturning the two previous rulings, sending the case back to the appeals court.

The decision was overturned because “the court ruled that the case should not be based on common law, but rather for product liability”, explained François.

The subtle distinction, however, was enough to allow Monsanto escape a guilty verdict.

Since then, there has been a groundswell of support for François, both financial and otherwise. To continue his legal battle against Monsanto, he launched a fundraising campaign.

“I received numerous messages of support outside of my friends and family. They were crucial at a time when I was experiencing a lot of self-doubt, especially after losing the second appeal,” he said.

François is now seeking more than €1 million in damages from Monsanto. Considered 40 percent disabled by France’s Agricultural Mutual Fund, François says he suffers from bouts of amnesia, vertigo, stuttering, seizures, irritability and recurrent comas caused by the weed killer.

‘Monsanto can’t continue to act with impunity’

François’ case dates back to April 2004. The farmer, who used Lasso on his crops, fell seriously ill after accidently inhaling fumes that had seeped out from a container left in the sun. Complaining of heat flashes and dizziness, François lost consciousness and was rushed to the emergency room. He was released from hospital 200 days later.

It wasn’t until the following year that Professor André Picot, president of the Toxicology and Chemistry Association in Paris, identified Chlorobenzene as the culprit for François’ illness. The compound makes up 50 percent of Lasso’s composition.

François has since converted his 250-hectare (618 acres) farm to organic agriculture. He now works part-time, tending to his crops with the help of two farmhands.

When he reflects on the past, he is entirely disillusioned. “I practiced a form of agriculture that I believed in, a form of agriculture that was promoted at the time and that responded to society’s needs. But we as farmers were wrong, our collective expectations as a society were wrong. We put our faith in companies that told us they were selling a remedy for our plants. What they forgot to say was that it could poison us too,” François said.

He also blames French authorities for being slow to act. The same weed killer was pulled from the market in Canada in 1985. Belgium and the United Kingdom soon followed suit in 1992. But it wasn’t banned in France until November 2007.

François fears the same is now happening with glyphosate – a broad spectrum herbicide that has been linked to cancer. Although authorities recently banned the sale of Monsanto’s glyphosate-based weed killer Roundup in France, President Emmanuel Macron has approved continued use of the herbicide until 2021.

“The president lacked courage. The authorities in France remain under the diktat of these companies,” he said.

François said he hopes his lawsuit “will show multinationals like Monsanto that they can’t continue to act with impunity. That a simple citizen can take them to court and have them sentenced”.

Jurisprudence

Monsanto has maintained the same position throughout the legal battle: that its products are not to blame.

“Whatever the cause, this case deserves close attention and Bayer is committed to a fair understanding of the situation,” Monsanto’s parent company said in a statement, adding that “the use of phytosanitary products do not pose a risk to human health if used strictly as directed, and in accordance with all instructions appearing on the label”.

One thing is certain: if the court rules on behalf of François, it will be a landmark decision.

“The verdict in Paul François’ case against Monsanto could open the door to numerous other lawsuits by people who have experienced injury caused by this herbicide,” his lawyer Lafforgue said.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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