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(July 25, 2001) BRUSSELS -- The European Commission has decided to refer France to the European Court of Justice for applying its alcohol ad ban to block televising sporting events that take place outside France.

The French law, known as the Loi Evin, outlaws all visible alcohol and tobacco brands on television. This includes sponsors' names on soccer shirts as well as billboard ads.

Under pressure from the EC and from the drinks industry, the CSA, France's TV regulator, has clarified this law relating to cross-border broadcasts being beamed into France. It added a ruling that international sporting competitions could be exempt from Evin, but matches between France and another country could not.

The European Commission has demanded changes to this, but in spite of efforts by Internal Market Commissioner Frederik Bolkestein, France has refused to budge.

"The final version of this code is not adequate, in terms of both its content and legal form, to allow for the satisfactory removal of the barriers it had contested in its reasoned opinion," the EC said in a statement.

"Unfortunately nothing has changed," said a spokesman for Mr. Bolkestein. "In desperation we are referring this to the court."

The World Federation of Advertisers "welcomes" the decision. "It underlines that the Loi Evin has cross-border implications," said Public Affairs Manager Daniel Krebber. He said the referral to the court might help overcome other national ad bans that also have cross-border implications, such as Greece's ban on toy advertising on TV and Sweden's blanket ban on alcohol products.

"The commission takes the lead in fighting for the single market in Europe. What it is showing today is that if you mess around with commercial Communications, you also mess around with the single market," Mr. Krebber said.

Exactly a year ago to the day, rum maker Bacardi won a referral to the European Court of Justice of its long-running legal dispute over advertising with the U.K.'s Newcastle United soccer club.

Bacardi sued Newcastle United for ordering the removal of ads for its Pastis Duval spirits brand during a match against French club Metz in 1996, which was televised in France. The club claims it was forced to remove the ads in order to comply with France's Loi Evin.

The U.K. court that referred the case to Luxembourg last year did so to resolve the issue of compatibility of the Loi Evin with the single-market clauses of the Treaty of Rome.

"It is impossible to say what impact the Commission's decision today will have on our case," said spokesman Eelco van Ravenswaaij. The case is still pending. France, the U.K. and the European Commission are all making submissions to the court in the Bacardi case, he said, adding that it could be another two years before a ruling. -- Paul Meller

Copyright July 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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