Introduction to France’s Legal System
French law belongs to the family of civil law systems. Legislation occupies a paramount position, while court decisions play a lesser role. A decision is only binding on the parties to the case at hand and does not constitute a binding precedent for the lower courts. Custom, of great importance in the old French law, particularly in northern France, today plays a very limited role, largely in the clarification or interpretation of statutes. France is one of the founders of the European Union and is subject to Community law.
Sources of Law
France is a democratic republic and a unitary state that combines features of presidential and parliamentary government. The present regime is the Fifth Republic, based on a constitution drafted under the leadership of Premier Charles de Gaulle and ratified by popular referendum on September 28, 1958. It has been amended on numerous occasions. It is a technical document which primarily focuses on issues of the operation of the state institutions and contains rules on the competence of government (the President, the government and Parliament), the enactment of legislation, and guarantees for the independence of the judiciary.
The constitution provides that “treaties or agreements duly ratified or approved, upon publication, have an authority superior to that of laws, subject, in regard to each agreement or treaty, to its application by the other party.” Ratification or approval for certain types of treaties or international agreements is conditioned upon an authorization from Parliament.
Laws and Regulations
The French legislature consists of two chambers: the National Assembly (external link) and the Senate. The National Assembly has 577 seats. Members of the National Assembly are elected by direct popular vote for terms of five years. The Senate currently comprises 331 senators elected for six-year terms by electoral colleges.
Parliament passes laws (lois). Bills are initiated by the government or by members of either chamber. They are examined successively by both chambers. A bill must be adopted in identical terms by each chamber to become final. If no agreement is reached after two readings in each chamber, the bill is sent to a joint committee to attempt to find a compromise. In case of failure to reach an agreement, the government may grant the final say to the National Assembly.
Laws come into force after promulgation and publication in the Journal Officiel (external link). The President of the Republic must promulgate a law no later than fifteen days after he has been notified of the adoption of the law by Parliament.
The Constitution enumerates specific areas of law that fall under the exclusive jurisdiction of Parliament, including, for example, public liberties, criminal law, taxation, education, labor law, social security, and national defense.
The Executive Branch issues decrees to implement laws where Parliament either decides not to legislate in detail or is not authorized by the Constitution to do so. In addition, the Executive Branch issues decrees relating to matters solely within its competence. It has residual power over all matters not specifically assigned to Parliament. Decisions of Ministers or other lower level officials are issued in many forms, such as arrêtés, circulaires, instructions, and notes.
France has two types of codes (1) the Napoleonic codes (Civil Code, Code of Civil Procedure, Commercial Code, Penal Code, and Code of Criminal Procedure) the purpose of which was to unify the law of the nation and (2) the “modern codes,” which resulted more from administrative necessity than any ideological stance. Successive commissions have collected legislative and administrative texts in specific areas and published them in codes. Over fifty of them have been published. The Napoleonic Codes all have been either extensively amended or re-drafted.
France has a dual system of courts with judicial courts (i.e. civil and criminal courts) on the one hand and administrative courts on the other hand. Each court system is headed by a supreme court.
The judicial courts are headed by the Cour de Cassation (external link). That court currently has six chambers: three civil chambers, a commercial and financial chamber, a social chamber, and a criminal chamber. The Court is referred to as the guardian of the law. It only reviews questions of law, not questions of fact. The Court’s essential purpose is to ensure that the interpretation of the law is uniform throughout the country. It examines whether the law has been properly applied in the light of the facts as assessed by the lower courts. The Court’s decisions are usually short, unsigned, and without concurrences or dissents.
Lower courts include (1) the cours d’appel (courts of appeal); (2) the tribunaux de grande instance (courts of general jurisdiction), which have a criminal chamber and are called tribunaux correctionnels when sitting as criminal jurisdictions; (3) the tribunaux d’instance (court of limited jurisdiction), which are called tribunaux de police when they hear cases of petty offenses; and (4) several specialized courts, such as the tribunaux de commerce (commercial courts) and the Conseils de Prud’hommes whose functions are to conciliate or adjudicate on individual employment disputes.
Administrative courts form a three-tier hierarchy headed by the Conseil d’Etat (external link) in Paris, below which are the regional Cours Administratives and the Tribunaux administratifs.
The dual system of courts leads to conflicts of jurisdiction. The final arbiter of these conflicts is the Tribunal des conflits. The Tribunal is composed of an equal number of judges drawn from the Court de Cassation and the Conseil d’Etat.
Review of the Constitutionality of Laws
The review of the constitutionality of laws is solely entrusted to the Conseil Constitutionnel (external link) (Constitutional Council). The ordinary judiciary historically has stayed away from challenging the constitutionality of laws due to the strict separation of powers.
Established by the current Constitution, the Council is quite a recent institution. It is not formally a court, as it does not hear applications from individual citizens concerning the constitutionality of laws passed by the parliament in relation to concrete situations. The Council expresses an opinion on the constitutionality of a law before its promulgation. The Council decisions are published in the Journal Officiel, France’s official gazette. They are final and binding on all public, administrative, and judicial authorities. A provision declared unconstitutional cannot be promulgated and therefore cannot take effect.
All organic laws (laws relating to the state institutions) and the rules of procedures of both parliamentary assemblies must be submitted to the Council for constitutional review, while ordinary laws and international agreements may be referred to it by either the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the President of the National Assembly, the President of the Senate, or, more commonly, by sixty deputies or senators, before the law is promulgated or the international agreement ratified
An English version of the 1958 Constitution as of May 2005 can be found in Volume VII, Constitutions of the Countries of the World, (Oceana Publications Inc.). Call number: K3157.A2B58 (1971).
Laws, decrees, ordinances, and arrêtés can be found in the Journal Official published by the Direction des Journaux Officiels (Official Gazette Directorate). The Journal Officiel, which is the only official source of laws and regulations, is published every day. There are six series; the most important and relevant one is the one containing the lois and décrêts in which all the statutes and the important administrative regulations are included. Indexes are published monthly. There are also cumulative yearly indexes.
Two other important series are the series reporting the parliamentary debates and the one containing the reports and opinions of the committee in charge of examining a bill. Lower regulations issued by the various ministries are published in the Bulletins Officiels.
The Direction des Journaux Officiels also produces all the codes, regardless of whether they have been adopted through parliamentary legislation or through administrative compilations. These publications contain the provisions of the code; no commentary or references are attached to them.
Codes are also published by private publishing firms; the most famous are the little red codes published by Dalloz. A commentary and list of cases are added to the text of the provisions. Each code has a table of contents showing the division of the code into books, titles, chapters, and sections. This table is followed by a chronological index enumerating the various laws and decrees which are inserted wholly or in part, indicating the article of the code where they are inserted. There is also an alphabetical index by subject heading.
There is no comprehensive official system of reports of judicial decisions. Only the decisions of the Court de Cassation are published in official reports. They are published in two series: Bulletin des Arrêts de la court de cassation rendus en matière civile and Bulletins des arrêts de la Court de Cassation rendus en matière criminelle. About two-thirds of the cases are reported, the decision to publish being left to the President of the chamber.
The decisions of the Conseil d’Etat are published in the Recueil Lebon, by a private publisher under the sponsorship of the Conseil d’Etat, and therefore are considered semi-official. The decisions of the Tribunal des conflits are incorporated.
The best sources for courts decisions are the revues juridiques générales (legal reviews), various Web sites, or fee databases.
Legal reviews usually are published weekly. They each are divided into several parts, which generally are: (1) current news; (2) legal writings; (3) jurisprudence for the full text of court decisions, with notes; (4) legislation; and (5) summaries of new cases. The three best known legal reviews are: Recueil Dalloz, La Semaine Juridique, and La Gazette du Palais.
Encyclopedias are frequently used by practitioners and scholars. They are of a high scholarly quality in that all the articles have been written by renowned judges, scholars, or practitioners. There are two major sets of encyclopedia: (1) les Répertoires Dalloz and (2) les Juris-classeurs.
The Encyclopédie Juridique Dalloz contains eleven Répertoires. The Law Library of Congress’s collection has eight of them. Call number: KJV2197.2.R47.
LexisNexis-Jurisclasseurs contains 77 collections which cover all law topics in a very detailed fashion. It is the most comprehensive collection. Each topic is updated as needed. The Law Library’s collection has the International law volumes. Call number: JX74.J87.
Law Reviews and Legal Periodicals
Fewer law reviews exist in France than in the United States. Articles usually are written by scholars, judges, and practitioners, but not by students. The Index to Foreign Legal Periodicals indexes the major French law reviews and periodicals.
English Language Introductions to French Law
John Bell, Sophie Boyron and Simon Whittaker. Principles of French Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Call number: KJV233.B45 1998.
Christian Dadomo and Susan Farran. The French Legal System. London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1993. Call number: KJV233.D32 1993.
English Language Guides and Treatises
Lovells Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP. Doing Business in France. New York: Lexis Nexis - Matthew Bender. Call number: Law France 7 Doin 1983 (updated on a regular basis).
Francis Lefebvre. French Tax and Business Law Guide. Levallois, France: Editions Francis Lefebvre, 2007. Call number: KJV 240.B87 N491983 (updated on a regular basis).
Henry Dyson, French Property and Inheritance Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Call number: KJV112. D97 2003.
Catherine Elliott. French Criminal Law. Portland, OR: Willan Publishing, 2001. Call number: KJV7979.E465 2001.
L. Neville Brown & John S. Bell. French Administrative Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Call number: KJV4669.B76 1998.
Barry Nicholas. The French Law of Contract. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Call number: KJV 1668. N 53 1992.
John Bell, French Constitutional Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. Call number: KJV4390.B45 1992.
Christian Dodd, tr. The French Code of Civil Procedure in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Call number: KJV3932.51806.A2 F73 2006.
Edward A. Tomlinson, tr. French Penal Code. Littleton, CO: Rothman & Co., 1999. Call number: KJV 7974.31992A52 1999.
John H. Crabb, tr. The French Civil Code. Littleton, CO: Rothman & Co., 1995. Call number: KJV444.2804.A52
Government General Portals
Legifrance (external link): gives access to the basic legal texts (the Constitution, Codes, Official gazettes since January 1, 1990 and important court decisions. Some of the codes have been translated into English (translated versions are not always up to date). Links to European Law and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs database “Pacte” containing treaties and international agreements currently in force are included.
Official Gazettes (external link): contains authenticated electronic versions of the official gazettes since June 2004.
Public Service - Portal of the French Administration (external link): gives access to the French administration. It contains guides by themes covering rights and duties of citizen, for example in the areas of lodging, immigration, and disabilities. It has on-line forms and government public reports.
Prime Minister (external link)
Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Co-Development (external link)
Ministry of Interior (external link)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (external link)
Ministry of Defense (external link)
Ministry of Justice (external link)
Ministry of Budget (external link)
Ministry of Economy, Finances and Employment (external link)
Ministry of National Education (external link)
Ministry of Culture and Communication (external link)
Ministry of Ecology, Development and Sustainable Development (external link)
Ministry of Labor, Social Relations and Solidarity (external link)
Ministry of Agriculture (external link)
Ministry of High Education and Research (external link)
Ministry of Housing (external link)
Ministry of Health, Youth and Sport (external link)
Independent Administrative Authorities
Financial Markets Authority (external link) (Autorité des Marchés Financiers)
National Consultative Ethics Committee on Health and Life Sciences (external link) (Comité Consultatif National d’Ethique)
Data Protection Authority (external link) (Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés)
Consumer Safety Commission (external link) (Commission de la Securité des Consommateurs)
Commission for the Financial Transparency of Political Life (external link) (Commission pour la transparence de la vie politique)
Council for Competition (external link) (Conseil de la Concurrence)
High Council for Audiovisual (external link) (Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel)
High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality (external link) (Haute Autorite de lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité)
Ombudsman (external link) (Mediateur de la Republique)
LLRX.com (external link) has an excellent French Law Guide in English prepared by Claire M. Germain.
Additional, Unofficial Legal Web Sites
Juriscom.net (external link) (Technology and Information Law)
RevueFiduciaire.com (external link) (Fiscal, Social and Accounting Law)
Institute National de la Propriété Industrielle (external link) (National Institute of Industrial Property)
Legalis.net (external link) (Internet Law, Trademark, Privacy & E-commerce)
Cyberlex (external link) (New Technologies Law)
For more information on France see:
- Global Legal Monitor: France
- Guide to Law Online: France
- Children's Rights: France
- Habeas Corpus Rights: France
Last Updated: 07/26/2012