FOS-SUR-MER, France — The line of giant chimneys ceaselessly belching smoke in the air stretches to the horizon in one of the most polluted industrial zones in Europe.
For years, the inhabitants of Fos-sur-Mer, France, accepted their illnesses — for example, a cancer rate that is double the national average — in exchange for jobs in the nearly 200 factories, warehouses, gas terminals and industrial sheds that surround them.
Doctors’ waiting rooms were often full. At the cemetery, tombstones recorded the deaths of young men cut down in their prime. In addition to the cancer rate, the asthma rate is also considerably higher than the national average, according to a publicly funded health study.
But enough got to be enough. Citizens in this otherwise sun-dappled corner of the Mediterranean, just west of Marseille, decided not long ago that they would take action, whatever their misgivings about losing their jobs.
In a groundbreaking move, they took their fight to a place rarely used in France to resolve such disputes: the country’s justice system.
Many of the citizens of Fos-sur-Mer have banded together to file a criminal complaint accusing the steel, oil and petrochemical companies in the region of putting their lives at risk. It is a first in France: hundreds of citizens taking on an entire region’s industry in court, and threatening criminal sanctions.
Sylvie Anane, who lives within breathing distance of the industrial plants, has suffered a debilitating tally of illnesses: heart problems requiring a stent in 2001, ovarian cancer in 2002, diabetes in 2003, thyroid cancer in 2008, a heart attack in 2010, breast cancer in 2015 and another heart attack in 2018.
“For a long time, nobody talked about the pollution,” said Ms. Anane, one of the hundreds who brought the criminal complaint. “It was a bit of a taboo. The idea was that it gave us work.”
The citizens have taken on not just the government, but also, in a first, an entire industrial basin: all of the Marseille area’s heavy industry, which together pumps out one-fifth of France’s fine particles and a quarter of its heavy metals emissions.
Nearly 20 percent of France’s factories classified as high risk by the European Union are clustered in Fos-sur-Mer, built alongside a giant inland lagoon.
The citizens are calling into question a decades-old state industrial strategy that looked to pack as much heavy industry as possible into a confined area without questioning the human costs.
Now the state, typically seen in France as the ultimate protector, is being blamed for failing to shield residents from the pollution, and is accused of going easy on the companies for decades, and damaging the health of the whole region along the way.
For example, in May 2010, the prefect, the highest-ranking local representative of France’s central government, noted “numerous uncontrolled atmospheric emissions” at an ArcelorMittal steel plant in the area, according to the criminal complaint.
“The prefect evidently failed to issue any warnings,” the criminal complaint says.
ArcelorMittal did not respond to a request for comment.
A health study conducted in 2017 helped trigger the legal fight when it revealed that it wasn’t just employees being put at risk.
In terms of harm, the study “showed no difference between the workers and the population as a whole, and that really surprised us,” said Barbara Allen, an American sociologist who helped lead the study.
The complaint of criminal endangerment was filed 16 months ago and now includes 260 residents, seven citizens groups and several unions. In France, an ordinary citizen can initiate a criminal complaint, which the prosecutor can then take up or reject.
The prosecutors’ office is expected to decide soon on whether to proceed with a full-blown investigation and who the defendants would be.
Julie Andreu, the Marseille environmental lawyer who filed the criminal complaint last fall, said her clients hoped the courts will force the industrial plants “to conform to the norms and quit exceeding the pollution limits.”
A jail sentence for any of the defendants would be unlikely under the French system.
Four companies, including ArcelorMittal and a fuel refinery belonging to Esso, part of Exxon Mobil, have also been targeted in a lawsuit working its way through the French justice system.
Whatever the outcome of Ms. Andreu’s suits, both criminal and civil, the novel legal battle underway in Fos-sur-Mer is likely to have far-reaching effects on citizen efforts to push back against polluters in France.
“This is a first,” said Christelle Gramaglia, sociologist at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment. “In Fos, the originality of it is, you’ve got the unions in the factories who are saying, ‘The residents’ problems are the same as ours.’”
Exxon Mobil has described the Esso refinery as a “responsible actor” in regards to the environment. ArcelorMittal, a steel-making giant, has argued that it has already spent tens of millions of euros on pollution-reducing equipment, a point conceded to by community activists, who nonetheless said the company’s effort was not enough.
Citizens’ groups said they had taken their concerns to government officials time and again. But Daniel Moutet, an activist who has been fighting the factories for nearly two decades, said the authorities “did nothing.’’
He and others grew frustrated and looked for legal help.
“After 10 years, they knocked on my door,” said Ms. Andreu, the Marseille lawyer handling both the criminal complaint and the lawsuit. “They came to us for answers. We told them we would look into whether these companies had violated the legal limits. And very quickly we saw that it was systematic. And so we saw that for years, they had been allowed to get away with it.”
Mr. Moutet said many of his fellow citizens had long scoffed at his efforts, seduced into indifference by the multitude of jobs and the area’s relative prosperity, its handsome stadium, abundant child care facilities and rows of tidy suburban houses.
Workers would come home from work reeking of chemicals, or tar if they worked at the steel plant, but the odor quickly washed away.
“They didn’t take me seriously,” said Mr. Moutet, a short, intense man who carries a camera with him everywhere so that he can photograph infractions. “I was ‘the maniac with the camera.’ They would ask, ‘What use is it?’”
While his neighbors dismissed the problem, Mr. Moutet became more determined, once following and filming a plume of pollution nearly 70 miles down the highway. “For me, this is my whole life, my passion,” he said.
More people started joining the cause as the toll on the area’s health became harder to ignore, even as French officials defended their balancing of industrial policy with local air quality.
“It took years for people to become conscious” of the health consequences, said Mr. Moutet, but once they did, the fear and anger he had long felt became more widespread.
“They trusted these companies,” said Ms. Andreu, the lawyer. “They made the people rich. And then, little by little, the pathologies developed.”
Local health care professionals say the number of cancer cases in the area is well above normal.
“I have treated many victims,” said Patrick Courtin, a doctor in nearby Martigues who is a party to the criminal complaint. “There’s a cancer total that’s a great deal higher than in the surrounding region.”
In her neighborhood of 62 homes, there have been cancer victims in 22 of them, said Jackie Huriaux, a retired nurse who is also a party to the criminal complaint. “Nursing has completely changed around here,” she said. “Now, it’s all about cancer.”
The citizens who brought the criminal complaint and lawsuit know they face what could be a yearslong wait before the courts order any remediation at the plants or award any damages to “recognize the abnormal way they have to live,” Ms. Andreu said.
They also know that the factories are an essential part of the area’s economic life and that the area’s air quality will never be perfect. But it could be so much better, they’re sure, if the courts forced the plants to adopt the most modern pollution-reducing methods.
“We need the jobs,” said Ms. Anane, who has numerous ailments. “But we need to be healthy to work.”
That conundrum is not far beneath the surface among the after-work crowd at the no-frills Bar du Commerce in the center of Fos. The customers who gathered there on a recent evening, before the coronavirus shut down social life, had just come from the refineries, factories and docks of the industrial zone. They were lustily downing pastis, the Provençal anis liqueur.
“Sure, we’re for these lawsuits,” said Bruno Thieulent, a dockworker. “But then, you’ve got to think about the work. If there’s no pollution, there’s no work. Besides, we’ve always lived with it. It’s just been part of our lives, that’s all.”