PARIS -- As the trade crisis between the United States and the European Community over hormone-treated meats moves toward its Jan. 1 deadline, no one can claim more responsibility than a 48-year-old French consumer activist, Francois Lamy.

Eight years ago, Lamy -- then director of the French Federal Consumers Union (FCU) -- led a spectacularly successful consumer boycott of hormone-treated veal in France on the grounds that such meat could be harmful to consumers. Within a month of the boycott's announcement, purchases of veal in France fell by 70 percent.

That November, at Lamy's urging, the boycott was extended successfully throughout Europe by the European Bureau of Consumer Unions (EBCU), a Brussels-based umbrella group for national consumer associations.

It was against this backdrop that the EC Council of Ministers decided in 1980 to ban hormone-treated meats from the Continent, a decision that went into effect after years of legal and parliamentary maneuvering.

Now, as the controversial ban is about to be extended to imported meats on Jan. 1, the United States contends that it is an unlawful trade restriction and is threatening retaliation on a host of European products. The EC, in return, promises retaliation for any retaliation.

U.S. officials call it a trade issue, but the significance of the hormone fight for the once-moribund European consumer movement can hardly be overstated.

For the first time, said Olivier Reboul, director of the animal sciences division of the chemical company Monsanto France, "the EC took into account the interests of consumers. They said, in effect, 'The consumers don't want certain products, so we'll ban them.' "

Although he personally feels that efficacy and safety should be the only criteria in deciding whether growth hormones will be allowed in European cattle (farmers say they build weight without harming the meat), Reboul said, "It's going to be very difficult for the EC to go backwards because of public opinion."

And that public opinion was influenced in great part by Lamy, a lawyer who happily admits to copying some of the organizational tactics of Ralph Nader.

Now director of health, safety and environmental issues for the EBCU, Lamy "has played a determinant role" in the continuing fight to reaffirm and enforce the ban, said Jean-Paul Olivier, director of the Bureau for General Policy on Consumer Issues of the French Ministry of Finances.

"This is not an emotional issue," insisted Lamy, who tends to make his arguments by reciting long strings of technical data in a rapid-fire manner.

"Without scientific arguments and economic arguments -- for example, why do we need hormones to produce more meat at a time of overproduction? -- we wouldn't have had the support of the media," he said. "The EBCU has four people on its team; there are 2,000 industry lobbyists in Brussels. You can imagine the mountains we have to move."

Calling himself the grandson of "stubborn peasants" in the Franche-Comte region to the east of Burgundy, Lamy received his master's degree in law at the Sorbonne in 1962 but never practiced. Instead he began his career as a journalist for children's magazines, before joining the staff of Que Choisir? (What to Choose?), the magazine of the FCU, in 1975.

He became director of the magazine in 1977, and thus the de facto head of the organization, which draws its operating funds from subscriptions and newsstand sales (Que Choisir? takes no advertisements).

Before Lamy joined the FCU, the French movement was generally regarded as toothless, said Patrick Lepetit, a journalist at Que Choisir? who worked under Lamy. "French manufacturers refused all dialogue with consumers," Lepetit said.

Lamy's first major consumer campaign had an impact in France comparable to Ralph Nader's crusade against the Chevrolet Corvair.

In 1979, Lamy published letters from two readers complaining of defects in tires made by the Kleber company. He invited other readers to report problems with tires and discovered that 10 times as many complaints were reported on Kleber tires than for any other brand.

"There was no dialogue with Kleber, from the start," recalled Lamy. "They came to see me in my office one morning to discuss the problems, and that same night they denied publicly that there were any."

When a government laboratory refused to release the results of its tests on Kleber tires, Lamy sent a reporter to stop at every gas station on the highway from Paris to the Cote d'Azur to ask about blowouts.

"It was explosive," he said of the results of this probe, which received wide press coverage in France -- a first where consumer groups were concerned. "We found 1,000 serious accidents and 200 deaths" due to Kleber tires, Lamy said.

These reports, along with laboratory reports paid for by the FCU, were published in "Black Book: The Kleber Affair," which was written by a team of FCU journalists and became a best-seller. Kleber sued the FCU for defamation, but two years later, as tire sales plummeted, the company declared bankruptcy and was bought by tire giant Michelin & Co.

The case "had a huge effect," said Olivier. "Before, French companies would say, 'We make good products -- period.' But what happened to Kleber made a certain number of companies reflect. They saw the value of a dialogue with consumers."

Meanwhile, the FCU's membership grew to 40,000 and the circulation of Que Choisir? doubled.

Lamy makes no bones about his "admiration" for Nader and Nader's organization: "Like him, we formed small groups with specific competences," in which technical experts and lobbyists worked closely together.

Consumerism in France dates from 1952, when the government invited unions and buyers' cooperatives to found the FCU, "to give them a voice in the reconstruction of the {postwar} economy," said Olivier.

But by the early 1960s both wings had abandoned the FCU, leaving a small group of journalists, who in 1962 founded Que Choisir?, modeled on the Belgian consumer magazine Test-Achat (Buyers' Test).

The FCU was rebuilt from this base as a coalition of local consumer groups -- there are now 220 in the federation -- funded by profits from the magazine.

In West Germany and the Netherlands, consumerism gathered strength in the 1980s as an offshoot of the environmental movement, and is now closely associated with the leftist Green Party. This alliance explains why West Germany has been a particularly strong advocate of the hormone ban, Reboul suggested.

Lamy's next goal, assuming the import ban goes into effect as scheduled, is to make sure the hormone restrictions are effective throughout Europe. The EBCU's test facilities in Ghent, Belgium, show that about 40 percent of locally produced meat still contains traces of hormones.

Farmers are resisting the ban: In August and September, thousands of cattle had to be slaughtered in Rhine-Westphalia and the north of France after it was discovered that they had received hormone implants.

Which means, Lamy admitted, that the ban on hormone-treated meats amounts to "an interesting commercial bet." The question is whether European consumers who were willing to boycott veal also will be willing to pay more for hormone-free meat.

While waiting for the verdict, "We are cautiously optimistic about the future," Lamy said. "Our optimism is mitigated to the extent that we have no relevant experience to guide us."