Orrick’s European competition team assisted and represented Total (Totalgaz and its parent company Total Raffinage Marketing) in a major, multi-year case in France that wrapped up on December 20, 2010, and that involved the five main players in the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) market. Total’s competitor Shell had lodged price cartel accusations as part of its application for price leniencies submitted to the French Competition Authority (FCA), France’s national competition regulator. Shell had alleged that two cartels existed in the LPG market: one involving collusion on prices and one involving collusion to raise entry barriers for mass distributors who planned to enter the market.
The FCA investigated the allegations for more than five years and, at the end of the probe, accused the five companies involved of perpetrating a price cartel. The FCA also accused the parents of four of the companies, following the Akzo precedent (see Orrick’s summary of that ruling here). The FCA also determined that alleged barriers raised to hinder mass distributors’ entry represented an abuse of a collective dominant position, but not a cartel.
However, Shell’s leniency application, which had prompted the FCA investigation, was primarily based on e-mails and an affidavit from a former employee. The Orrick team discovered and proved that the e-mails were not genuine. No other party, nor the FCA itself, had raised this issue. Once Orrick’s team filed its findings, the FCA immediately appointed an expert who fully confirmed Orrick’s analysis. The FCA subsequently withdrew all of its accusations, dismissing the case without finding that any company had participated in a cartel.
Further, the FCA invited in the public decision its General Rapporteur (the head of investigations at the FCA) to initiate proceedings against Shell for misleading the FCA, which could net a fine up to one percent of Shell’s worldwide turnover. It also invited the chairman of the FCA to initiate criminal proceedings.
This case required complicated legal and economic analyses. One of the questions raised was whether the Airtours standard applied not only to ex-ante cases (merger control) but also to ex-post cases (antitrust) and whether it was the only standard to apply. The FCA decided to apply the Airtours test only and concluded, as argued by Total, that there was no collective dominant position in the LPG bottled gas market in France. This decision is very important for major companies because it applied the mergers and behavioral practices standard to antitrust cases and also gave useful guidance for how to analyze concentrated markets requiring high and long-term investments. Orrick’s team included associates Lise Damelet Grilli, Guénolé Le Ber and Philippe Zeller, and was led by Partner Philippe Rincazaux, all of the Paris office.