In December 2010, a group of winemakers in Bordeaux, France took action against the Bordeaux Wine Bureau (CIVB), protesting the membership fees they were charged by CIVB by virtue of their inclusion in the appellation. The fees can amount to tens of thousands of euros annually, and payment is mandatory; because there was no way to “opt out”, the plaintiffs claimed they should have been afforded access to financial records as to how that money was spent, similar to the guarantees of access to records showing how tax dollars are spent by public agencies.
The Constitutional Council in Paris determined that it is legal for CIVB and other growers’ organizations to make membership payments mandatory for merchants and winemakers in their region. According to CIVB, the fees are necessary for them to continue their activities aimed at marketing and promoting Bordeaux wines, and research it conducts to benefit its members.
The Constitutional Council is the highest constitutional authority in France. Its chief function is to rule on whether statutes, regulations, and other laws in France conform with the French Constitution, though it also oversees elections and referendums. Some review is compulsory, but, as in this case, a party involved in any proceeding before a French court may also make an application for a “priority preliminary ruling in the issue of constitutionality” where they argue that a statutory provision at the center of the proceedings infringes on rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. With its decision upholding the mandatory fees, the Constitutional Council sends the matter back to the courts where CIVB is seeking to enforce payment of fees the protesters refused to pay over the past 5 years.
More information on CIVB and its activities can be found at http://www.bordeaux.com/en. There does not appear to be a published decision as of yet, but information on how the Constitutional Council handles applications for priority preliminary rulings can be found on their website.