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A quartet of popular European online casinos have been targeted by a French lawsuit. Bwin, 888, Sportingbet, and Unibet have all be accused of contravening French online gambling laws by offering gambling products to its citizens. The lawsuit has been brought by a conglomeration of French land based casino companies, along with an industry trade union. The plaintiffs accuse bwin and its compatriots of providing unfair competition for numerous bricks-and-mortar casinos.

Although this legal action bears some similarity to cases brought by other European Union countries, it has come as a surprise, given that the implementation of strict liberalization laws are only a few months away. The French government looks set to ratify new regulations that would require all online casinos operating in the country to apply for a license. A new regulatory body, Arjel, will be set up to dole out permits and police these new rules. The French are traditionally hard on gambling in all its forms and are likely to turn down around half of the 100 predicted applications. Anyone granted a license will be subject to very high tax rates and operating or advertising in France will become illegal for any company without authorization. Arjel will also be granted the power to force ISPs to block access to any unlicensed company touting for French business.

The suit brought against bwin et al has been submitted by casino companies Barrière, Joagroupe, and Tranchant, in addition to the Casino de France trade union. The first of these, Barrière, is currently working in tandem with state monopoly Francaise Des Jeux to create an online poker site. They claim that the accused companies are “depriving the State of substantial tax revenues, and not upholding the principles of player protection and fighting against problem gambling, fraud and money laundering.” As punishment, they have asked that the Paris Criminal Court assign them a nominal €1 in damages and €30,000 in legal costs. Most worryingly for the accused, they also demand that all of the firms are banned from applying for a license for two years. The plaintiffs’ final request is that the final decision of the court be published in French daily newspapers, implying that the plaintiffs wish to make a statement about the power that they and their government exert over external online gaming operators.

Lawyers representing the defendants have issued strongly worded rebuttals, arguing that France has no jurisdiction over their clients. Bwin representatives noted that the online casino and poker site offer 22 separate languages, of which French is just one. The existence of a French language version of their software does not “give the French judge the competence” to apply any binding ruling. All of the accused companies are based off-shore and do not fall directly under French or EU law. This situation now closely resembles the nebulous conditions in the United States, where some sites operate with impunity, while others who have withdrawn from the country are punished with multi-million dollar fines. As yet there has been no official word from the French courts or the European Court of Justice and a date for case to be heard has not been set.