1. CASE SUMMARY
A. Summary of facts
Pronuptia de Paris ('Pronuptia') is specialized in the sale of wedding apparel worldwide under the trademark ‘Pronuptia de Paris’. Pronuptia holds approximately 30% of the bridal wear market in France and more modest shares in other Member States. Pronuptia typically uses franchising to distribute its products, but also operates owned subsidiaries in some Member States. Approximately two-thirds of the goods traded through the Pronuptia outlets are of Pronuptia’s own design or of designs commissioned or selected by Pronuptia. The remaining goods are purchased directly by the franchisees from third-party suppliers.
Pronuptia requests the European Commission (‘Commission’) to take a formal decision clearing or exempting its standard form franchise agreement under Article 101 TFEU.
B. Notes on case history
The decision of the Commission in the present proceedings is preceded by the 1986 Pronuptia judgment of the European Court of Justice (‘ECJ’) in case 161/84 in a distinct proceeding opposing Pronuptia de Paris to one of its franchisees. A separate case card is available with respect to this ECJ judgment.
C. Legal analysis
The Commission first emphasized having requested Pronuptia to include in the standard form franchise agreement certain rights which the franchisees allegedly had in practice already, notably the right to
- purchase Pronuptia products from other franchisees;
- purchase goods not connected with the essential object of the franchise busines from suppliers of their choice, subject to ex post qualitative vetting by the franchisor; and
- set their own retail prices, prices circulated by the franchisor being only recommended prices (including as regards maximum prices).
C.1 - Article 101(1) TFEU – clauses not falling within Article 101(1) TFEU
The Commission then identified clauses of the standard form Pronuptia franchise agreement that, in line with the ancillary restraints doctrine applied by the ECJ to franchise in its Pronuptia judgment, do not fall within the scope of Article [101(1) TFEU] because they:
- merely define the basic services the franchisor provides to the franchisee (§24);
- are essential to prevent the know-how made available and the assistance given by the franchisor from benefitting competitors (§25(i));
- provide for the control essential to preserve the common identity and reputation of the network trading under the franchisor’s name (§25(ii));
- do not, by reason of their object, nature or effect, fall within Article [101(1) TFEU] (§26); and
- do not constitute restrictions of competition on account of the specific nature and content of the bilateral obligations accepted by the parties to a retail franchise agreement (§27).
C.2 - Article 101(1) TFEU – clauses falling within Article 101(1) TFEU
The Commission subsequently identified clauses of the standard form Pronuptia franchise agreement that do fall within the scope of Article [101(1) TFEU] (§28). It concerns:
- the exclusivity granted to the franchisee to operate under the franchisor’s name in a defined sales area (territorial exclusivity); and
- the obligation on the franchisee to carry on the franchise business exclusively from the premises approved for that purpose (location clause).
The Commission observed that the combined effect of these clauses is to protect each franchisee against competition from other franchisees. Moreover, the agreement also implies that the franchisor may not operate directly in the allocated territory. Therefore, the Commission, in line with the guidance from the ECJ in its Pronuptia judgment, found that these clauses involve market sharing and therefore do constitute restrictions of competition within the meaning of Article [101(1) TFEU) and are inherently likely to effect trade between Member States. The Commission observed that this was all the more likely on account of Pronuptia’s significant market share held on the French market for the relevant products and the finding that its network covered several Member States (§29-30).
C.3 - Article 101(3) TFEU – no block exemption
The Commission followed the reasoning of the ECJ in its Pronuptia judgment that Regulation 67/67 was not applicable to retail franchise agreements, given that the retail franchise agreements display features which distinguishes them from exclusive distribution agreements, whereas Regulation 67/67 only refers to exclusive distribution agreements and does not mention any of the clauses that are typical of retail franchise agreements (§33). It furthermore observed that the same applies in respect of Regulation 1983/83 (§34).
Therefore, no block exemption under Article [101(3) TFEU] was available for Pronuptia’s proposed standard form franchise agreement.
C.4 - Article 101(3) TFEU – individual exemption
The Commission then assessed the Pronuptia standard form franchise agreement in the light of the four requirements for an individual exemption laid down in Article [101(3) TFEU]. It decided that all requirements were met and that the Pronuptia agreement was exempted under Article [101(3) TFEU].
As regards the requirement that the restriction should be indispensable, the Commission acknowledged that the territorial exclusivity and the location clause are both indispensable, as the prospective franchisees would probably be unwilling to undertake the necessary investment and pay a substantial initial fee to enter the franchise system without some protection against competition from other franchisees and from the franchisor in the allotted territory. The Commission furthermore emphasized that franchisees were free to buy and sell the products amongst themselves.