France moves towards legalizing online gambling

France moved towards ending a state monopoly on online casino gambling and allowing privatly held companies to offer Internet wagers on poker, soccer and horse racing under a new law approved by parliament on Tuesday.

Under pressure from the European Union, companies and soccer clubs eyeing the multi-billion euro online gambling market, France’s government wants the law to be in force in time for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

Opposition parties have expressed concern that the proposed law would result in a boom in online casino gambling and an increase in gambling addicts, while private operators have said the new rules are still too restricting.

‘We chose a middle way that I believe is fair and efficient,’ said Budget Minister Eric Woerth, who introduced the bill. ‘That of a controlled opening.’

Worth said the law was needed to protect punters from illegal betting firms, given the explosion in online gambling.

Socialist parliamentarian Gaetan Gorce said it amounted to putting ‘the wolf of private operators into the sheepfold of small-time betters.’

The National Assembly approved the law by 302 votes against 206. It will still need to receive final approval in the Senate.

For now, the only legal operators of online casino gambling in France are two state-owned concerns, the PMU for horse racing and the Francaise des Jeux for lotteries and other games.

Woerth has said the state made more than 5 billion euros per year from gambling on the Internet, at licensed cafes and at the racing tracks. According to a parliamentary report, the French placed wagers worth 36 billion euros through the two state-owned operators in 2008.

Under the proposed new law, private firms would need to obtain a permit from a newly created regulator to set up websites offering wagers on games of skill such as poker, sports contests and horse racing.

wagers on games considered too addictive and based purely on luck, like one-armed bandits, will not be allowed. The French state will tax the bets, and state-owned Francaise des Jeux will retain its monopoly over the lottery under the law.

Critics from both the left-wing opposition and the ruling UMP worry that the addiction problem could worsen as private firms use advertising to lure in new users.

The opposition Socialist Party also accuses the government of seeking to favour the interests of several business leaders close to President Nicolas Sarkozy, who have stakes in gambling firms or plans to set up betting websites.

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