The European Commission is referring France’s restrictions on the ownership of biomedical laboratories to the European Court of Justice, claiming they constitute illegal restrictive practices under European Union (EU) law. The moves follows a number of unannounced raids, conducted the end of 2008 by inspectors from the Commission and France’s competition authorities, on the offices of a biomedical lab and the French Order of Pharmacists.

Under current French legislation, non-biomedical firms may hold no more than a quarter of shares of companies operating biomedical laboratories. Moreover, only “clinical biologists” – pharmacists or doctors – may operate the laboratories, but they cannot hold shares in more than two such institutions.

The raids were carried out following complaints lodged with the Commission by Labco, a company which operates a network of clinical laboratories across continental Europe. The first complaint, to the Commission’s DG Internal Market, led to EU law infringement proceedings being started in April 2006, but in October 2007 Labco complained again, this time to DG Competition.

The Commission said it carried out the raids because it had "reason to believe that the provisions of the EU Treaty prohibiting cartels, restrictive business practices and/or abuse of a dominant position have been infringed.”

Following negotiations with Brussels, the French authorities agreed to abolish the restrictions no later than early 2009, as part of a general reform of the requirements on biomedical firms. However, they recently told the Commission that this deadline could not be met, and also “failed to indicate whether such legislation would be adopted soon,” says a statement from Brussels.

In fact, draft legislation amending the regulations had been submitted to members of the French parliament, who rejected it.

The Commission raids have led to a “great deal of agitation, which once again sets citizens at odds with the idea of Europe,” according to Gilles Savery, a French member of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament (PSE). Before the investigators’ visits, French pharmacists were already “very worried by the possibility that private investors may be able to buy into professional services that are exclusively healthcare-focused and governed by professional ethics codes,” he told Parliament.

And now, as a result of pressure from the Commission, they now fear that the French government “has agreed to dismantle the arrangements that make private healthcare practitioners what they are,” he added.

However, in its announcement that the matter was now moving to the European Court, the Commission observed that public health protection can be achieved with less restrictive measures. It notes the importance of biomedical tests being carried out by competent, appropriately-qualified staff, but says it questions the need for such qualifications in order to simply own or have the right to operate a biomedical laboratory.