France fines 13 firms $1.2 bln for price-fixing

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PARIS (AP) — Penalizing a dirty business involving cleaning products, French regulators fined 13 consumer-products makers about 950 million euros ($1.2 billion) for price fixing on goods like shampoos, detergents and toothpaste.

France's competition authority said Thursday that the companies sought to maintain "artificially high" prices in negotiations with supermarkets which filtered down to consumers — and ultimately impacted the French economy.

Among those implicated were household names like U.S.-based Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee and Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever.

The sanctions came in two segments — cleaning and hygiene products.

The cleaning products included Vanish stain remover, Palmolive liquid detergent, and Ajax and Mr. Clean. Hygiene items included Head & Shoulders shampoo, and Signal and Colgate toothpaste.

In a statement, the agency said the collusion dated back to 2003-2006 and involved regular meetings to set prices and coordinate price hikes — at times secretly at restaurants or via correspondence to private homes. One 2006 raid by investigators at a Paris restaurant caught colluding executives "in the act," it said.

The fixing caused "certain harm to the economy," the authority said.

Some companies negotiated settlements or did not challenge the findings, but could contest the fine amounts. The authority allowed some leniency, depending on the companies' level of involvement and cooperation with investigators.

Six companies were targeted for both cleaning and hygiene products: Colgate-Palmolive, Henkel, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Reckitt Benckiser and Sara Lee. SC Johnson and Bolton Solitaire were penalized in the cleaning products area. Laboratoires Vendome, Gillette, L'Oreal, Beiersdorf and Vania were sanctioned over hygiene products price-fixing.

The single biggest fine was leveled against France's own L'Oreal: nearly 189.5 million euros.

French authorities also sanctioned Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Henkel and Colgate Palmolive for price-fixing linked to laundry detergent in 2011.

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