Paris court rules against Apple in case against 'tax evasion' protestors acting in 'general interest'

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At the end of a legal case brought by tech giant Apple against alter-globalisation organisation ATTAC, in which the tech giant sought a three-year ban on activists demonstrating in and outside its stores in France to highlight the firm’s tax-avoidance schemes, a Paris court has ruled in favour of ATTAC, describing its campaign as being in the “general interest”. Martine Orange reports.

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Following a series of demonstrations led by alter-globalisation group ATTAC in France at Apple stores across France last year, the US corporation filed a lawsuit last December to demand that the militants be served a three-year ban on any further protest stunts, aimed at embarrassing the firm for its alleged tax-dodging, under threat of a fine of 150,000 euros for every recurrence of the campaign.

The case was heard before a Paris court earlier this month, and magistrates announced their deferred verdict on Friday, finding against Apple and noting that ATTAC’s campaign was justified “in the general interest about tax payments and tax evasion”.

“ATTAC is threatening to repeat its actions which have already caused a prejudice for Apple,” the firm stated in its submission for the ban, “and which will lead to the vandalising of the stores run by Apple, to placing in jeopardy the security of its employees and its clients and to cause a commercial prejudice to Apple.”

ATTAC, which was originally founded in France in 1988 to champion taxes on currency speculation, but which has since become an international organisation dedicated to what it calls “social, environmental and democratic alternatives in the globalisation process”, had argued for its right to freedom of expression and that its campaign did not involve vandalism or physical assault, but the moral support leant by the magistrates to the essence of its campaign came as a surprise. “We’ve won on every point in face of Apple,” jubilantly announced the organisation’s spokesman Dominique Plihon after the verdict was announced on Friday.

The demonstrations, which began last Spring, targeting Apple stores in Paris and in several towns across the country, ATTAC militants unfurled banners and daubed slogans, including “pay your taxes”, in whitewash on windows of the plush boutiques, denouncing the iPhone manufacturers tax avoidance in France by means of its financial accounting via financial structures in Ireland and Luxembourg.

During the hearing on February 12th, Apple’s lawyer Antonin Lévy, told presiding Judge Bérengère Dolbeau that “Apple does not want to gag anyone”.

“It is for freedom of speech, for the right to demonstrate,” said Lévy. “But freedom of expression cannot be an excuse for everything. To enter a store is the limit. One cannot work like that. There was an attempt at dialogue with ATTAC which failed. The debate was vitiated. Just before Christmas, Apple was forced to lodge this suit in order to ensure the safety of its employees and its clients.”

But in her ruling on Friday, Judge Dolbeau said: “No damage is cited by the Apple company, which speaks of ‘acts of vandalism’ or actions that place the security of its employees and clients in peril […] without detailing in its suit these damages and without justifying this by producing convincing evidence [with] no bailiff’s report or statement having been joined to the proceedings.”

She cited a demonstration by the militants at Apple’s store at the Place de l’Opéra in central Paris on December 2nd last year, when, Apple’s legal team argued, “limits were crossed” and which prompted the legal move against ATTAC. The demonstrators had entered the store, and once again unfurled banners, demanding that the firm completed its backpayment of 13 billion euros of taxes due to the Irish state. In 2016, the European Commission, prompted by growing public outrage at tax avoidance by large corporations, accusing Apple of unwarranted tax leniency in Ireland where it had based offices, ordered the Irish state to reclaim 13 billion euros in unpaid taxes, which it reluctantly set in motion in the first of a series of staggered payments last October. Judge Dolbeau said that the December 2nd demonstration was carried out “without violence, without damage, with no blockade of clients at the entrance of the store”, adding that the protestors evacuated the site “spontaneously” and “without the intervention of the forces of law and order”.

In its lawsuit, Apple had included a copy of a postcard sent to its French headquarters by ATTAC on which was written Rendez-vous à la rentrée” (roughly translated, “Rendezvous taken for the New Year”) which it described as a threat. Judge Dolbeau said the message was “very succinct and not very detailed” and could not be regarded by the court as evidence of “the imminence of harm and the certain occurrence of a risk”.

She concluded that there was no legal justification “for limiting the right to freedom of expression and the freedom to demonstrate by militants of the association ATTAC, which acted in conformity to the statutes of the association and in the framework of a campaign of general interest about tax payments and tax evasion”.

Throwing out all of Apple’s demands, she ordered the firm to pay ATTAC 2,000 euros towards its legal fees.

Apple gave no indication whether it would use its right to appeal the ruling. While the case has somewhat backfired against the tech giant, drawing further attention to the controversy over its tax schemes, the ruling that the ATTAC campaign is in “the general interest” will no doubt represent a worrying legal precedent for the firm and also other giant corporations accused of large-scale tax avoidance. 

Below is the court's ruling in full (in French):

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The French version of this article can be found here.

 

English version by Graham Tearse

 

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