Researching French Law
By Stéphane Cottin and Jérôme Rabenou
Published May 2005
See the Update!
Stéphane Cottin is the chief registrar of the Constitutional Council of France. Formerly, he was the creator of the documentation office, then of the website of the institution. He teaches legal research to both students in the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences-Po) and professionals with the Association of French Documentation Specialists (ADBS). He received an LL.M from Lille II University, a master's degree in Public Law, and a master in Library Science from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques of Paris (Sciences Po Paris).
He has published several articles in French and in English in law reviews, and several books, including a guide, 'Petit guide d'accès à l'information juridique française'.
Jérôme Rabenou is the webmaster of the French Constitutional Council. He created the first French legal newsgroup (news:fr.misc.droit), website (http://www.rabenou.org) and mailing-list (http://listes.cru.fr/wws/info/droit-net). He received an LL.M in business law from the University Paris-XIII.
Update to an article previously published on LLRX.com, February 15, 2001 <http://www.llrx.com/features/french.htm>
The French Republic (la République Française) is ruled by the Constitution of the Fifth Republic (October 4th, 1958). A more detailed description of the French legal system is given by Claire Germain in her French Law Guide.
France is a centralized country ruled by a semi-presidential system, called 'rationalized parlementarism'. The Head of the State (le Président de la République, Jacques Chirac since May 1995, re-elected in 2002) is elected by direct universal suffrage every 5 years (revision of the Constitution in September 2000). The President designates a Prime minister from the parliamentary majority. Parliament shall comprise the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) and the Senate (Sénat). They both pass the statutes.
France is ruled by a strict hierarchy of norms. An overall norm is the Constitution (traditionally merged with declarations of rights of 1789 and 1946). Under this text, Parliament should pass the statutes (les Lois), with an internal hierarchy: institutional act (loi organique), ordinary act (loi ordinaire), and ordinance (ordonnance).
The executive power has the right to enact regulations (règlements) which are called décrets (for Prime Minister and President of the Republic) and arrêtés (for the rest of the executive branch). Statutes and non-individual decrees have been numbered according to the form "99-1234" since 1945. Since 2000, cases are named according to the form "2000-1234". All Statutes and decrees, and the most important arrêtés, are published in the official gazette "Journal officiel de la République française, édition lois et décrets", and receive unique reference numbers (since 1987: a NOR for normalized). It might be useful for some databases. Since June 2004, French Law could also be published electronically.
The Court System
The French judicial system is historically strictly divided in two separate bodies: judiciary (ordinary) law and administrative law. At the top of the judiciary courts (concerning civil, trade, labor and criminal laws) there is a Supreme Court of Appeals or Cour de Cassation: 80 judges are appointed by the President of the Republic from nominations of the High Council of the Judiciary. For the record, there are also 35 courts of appeals, 181 tribunaux de grande instance, and 478 tribunaux d'instance (the lower level). At the top of the administrative courts (concerning the litigations involving public sector), there is the Council of State or Conseil d'Etat, with 8 cours administratives d'appel and 36 tribunaux administratifs.
The Constitutional Council, or Conseil Constitutionnel, is in charge of the constitutional review of the statutes before they are enacted (in abstracto control) and of the control of national elections (Parliament, President of the Republic, Referendum). The Constitutional Council consists of nine members: three members appointed by the president, three members appointed by the president of the National Assembly, and three appointed by the president of the Senate. In addition, former Presidents of the Republic are ex officio members of the Constitutional Council.
For a comprehensive presentation, see the website of the Justice Department.
The French Bicameral Parliament, or Parlement, consists of the Senate, or Sénat, (331 seats – 304 for metropolitan France, 15 for overseas departments and territories, and 12 for French nationals abroad; members are indirectly elected by an electoral college to serve nine-year terms; elected by thirds every three years: a reform conducted from 2004 to 2011 will lead to a six-years term and a renewal by half every three years) and the National Assembly or Assemblée Nationale (577 seats; members are elected under a single-member majoritarian system to a serve five-year term)
The "French Republic's number three assembly" can be found in the Conseil économique et Social.
· Legifrance: Public Service of the dissemination of the Law. Contains the official gazette from 1990, statutes and decrees from 1978, all the official codes (some of them are translated into English and Spanish), links toward other official sites.
· Service-Public: "Its design is focused on answering users' needs and on simplifying user's relations with Government agencies and services. For now you have access in English to public sites (local, national, European, International organizations, Foreign states)". This website includes the guide "your rights and procedures" which informs - in French - the user about his rights and obligations and directs him to relevant organizations. It comprises 2,400 sheets grouped by subject and 1,500 answers to frequently asked questions.
· Vie-Publique.fr: Official or governmental information for French citizens. Portal of all the public policies.
Several websites maintain lists of French ministries (departement = ministère) and offer English access:
Note that ministries are regulatory producers, and most of them give access to legal material in their own areas of competence.
Find here some important departments with English Internet access:
The General Directorate of Local Authorities – DGCL - belongs to the Ministry of Interior.
You can also find English access to some useful explanations on http://lessites.service-public.fr/cgi-bin/annusite/annusite.fcgi/loc1?lang=uk
France is divided into several administrative levels, the most important are: Région (22), Département (96), Canton (app. 4000), Commune (app. 37500). The 22 regions are Alsace, Aquitaine, Auvergne, Basse-Normandie, Bourgogne, Bretagne, Centre, Champagne-Ardenne, Corse, Franche-Comté, Haute-Normandie, Ile-de-France,Languedoc-Roussillon, Limousin, Lorraine, Midi-Pyrénées, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Pays de la Loire, Picardie, Poitou-Charentes, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, and Rhone-Alpes. Metropolitan France is then subdivided into 96 departments. France counts also 4 overseas departments (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion), 5 overseas territorial collectivities with special status (Mayotte, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, French Polynesia, Wallis & Futuna and New Caledonia).
Other (Semi) Government Institutions and Independent Administrative Authorities
Here is a selection of some of these websites, especially those with some information for English-speaking readers:
· Data Inspection Board (Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés) (English access)
· Ombudsman (Médiateur de la République)
French legislation is officially published (paper) in the Journal officiel (official gazette) and in several official bulletins. Since June 2004, French Law has also been officially published electronically.
The collected texts of the legislation in force are also available in private editions of 'Codes'. Law topics are shared by several editors: some famous editors are Dalloz (with red books), Litec, Francis Lefebvre, Juris-Classeur (with the most comprehensive offer: "codes et lois").
The official service named "Service Public de Diffusion du Droit par l'Internet" (Public service for the Dissemination of Law through the Internet) is now provided on a free and open basis (free for use, and with light license fees for commercial re-edition) by the Government via Légifrance. Some other private editors offer practically the same services with associated fees : Juris-Classeur (French division of Reed-Elsevier), Lamy (French division of Wolters-Kluwer) and Lexbase, for example. WestLaw is represented in France mainly by the Transactive company, but doesn't offer (yet ?) comprehensive access to French Law.
Free Internet Services
Legifranceis offering the content of the 'Journal officiel' since 1990, and also the consolidated text of every Acts (Lois) and decrees (décrets) since 1978, and some (the most important) of them before. The oldest one is from 1536!
· French Law, Constitution and Selective Legislation, Freshfields & Vivian Curran: Juris Publishing, Inc., New York
· Sourcebook on French Law, by Pollard David, Cavendish Publishing Ltd, 1998, ISBN 1-85941187-8
They are very rare. Nine codes (out of more than seventy-five) and two main acts are on the official portal Legifrance: Civil law, Civil procedure law, Intellectual Property law, Post and Telecommunication’s law, Insurance law, Procurement contract law, Criminal law, Criminal procedure, Trade law, Consumer law. Some institutions, like the Bank of France or the Ministry of Justice, offer unofficial translations of legal materials.
The official service is no longer (see above) conceded by the Government to ORT, with Jurifrance. Since 2002, the "Service Public de Diffusion du Droit par l'Internet" (Public service of Dissemination of Law through the Internet) has provided caselaw of the three supreme courts (Cour de cassation, Conseil d'Etat, Conseil constitutionnel). The decisions are available in full text since 1986, and in selection from the early 1960s. Private editors offer practically the same services with associated fees (http://www.lamyline.com; http://www.lexbase.fr). For the other courts (Courts of Appeal...) a fee-based service is available from Jurisdata for selected decisions from 1980.
Free Internet Services
English translations of French case law are scarce. There are a few periodicals, however, that publish English summaries of case law. The Constitutional council has been providing English summaries of its caselaw since 1989 in his Yearbook (ed. Dalloz). Some international organizations may offer some selected caselaw. A good example is the International Association of Supreme Administrative Jurisdictions in the Recueil de décisions des hautes juridictions administratives / Selection of decisions of Supreme Administrative Jurisdictions, or for the Commission for Democracy through law (Venice Commission) in his Bulletin on Constitutional Case-Law.
The Institute of Global Law (Pr. Basil Markesinis, Universty College of London) gives short summaries of French legal caselaw. The English translations of legal decisions include cases from the Conseil d'Etat, the Cour de Cassation and the Conseil Constitutionnel, the latter of which provides directly through its website some English-translated full text of decisions: see http://www.conseil-constitutionnel.fr/langues/anglais/essential.htm.
· List of French universities: http://www.education.gouv.fr/sup/univ.htm
The most important law library in France is Cujas (University of Paris Pantheon-Sorbonne). The whole catalog of the library (4 million items) is online. Others libraries have electronic access, including the National Library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, (direct access to the selection of legal ressources), or for example, Sciences-PoParis.
· French Legal System, by Andrew West, Yvon Desdevises, Alain Fenet, Oxford University Press, 2005, 377 pages, ISBN 0-406-90323-9
· French Legal Method, by Eva Steiner, Blackstone Press, 2002, 254 pages, ISBN 1 84174185 X
· Learning French Through The Law, by Vivian Grosswald Curran, Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburg School of Law, A publication of the Parker School of Foreign and Comparative Law, Columbia University. 300 Pages ISBN 0-9650295-0-6
· Principles of French Law, by John Bell, Sophie Boyron, Simon Whittaker, Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-19876395-6
· French substantive law, by Dadomo Christian and Farran, Sweet & Maxwell Ltd, 1996, ISBN 0421525509
· Introduction to French Law, by Dickson Brice, Financial Times Prentice Hall (a Pearson Education company), 1994, ISBN 0273601407
· The French Civil Code by John H. Crabb (Translator) 2002, Kluwer Law International; ISBN 90 6544797 0
Constitutional and Administrative Law
· French Administrative Law : L. Neville Brown, John S. Bell With the Assistance of Jean-Michel Galabert, 1998, Oxford Univ Pr; ISBN 0198765134
· The French Penal Code of 1994 As Amended As of January 1, 1999 (American Series of Foreign Penal Codes, 31) by Edward A. Tomlinson 1999) Fred B Rothman & Co; ISBN 0837700531
· English-French Glossary of Legal Terminology, Terms Commonly Used in Public and Private Law by L. Pollak 1996 Carswell Legal Pub; ISBN 0459233459
common French law dictionary is Vocabulaire Juridique, by Gérard Cornu, ed.
PUF, 2000, ISBN 2-13-050600-3
There is no official method of legal citation in French. Private and public editors have their own systems, their own abbreviations. However, on this excellent website, you will find some examples and practical exercises of translation of French legal citations:
At the European level, some initiative has to be mentioned here:
· http://publications.eu.int/code/fr/fr-5000400.htm list of French acronyms in EC sector
For information on legal bibliography (Canada): http://www.bib.umontreal.ca/DR/guides/guide9.htm
Finally, you can find below some URLs on how to refer to a document in a legal thesis or article:
Discussion Lists and blogs
Several French law lists have been created. Most of them are not really discussion lists, but one-way lists. Discussion lists, properly speaking, can be found athttp://listes.cru.fr/wws/lists/droit or on the "Francopholistes."
Five Usenet newsgroups concern legal matters: news:fr.misc.droit,news:fr.misc.droit.famille (Family issues), news:fr.misc.droit.immobilier (Real Estate), news:fr.misc.droit.travail (Labor) and news:fr.misc.droit.internet. Caution: they accept only French-written news.
The list of the association "Juriconnexion" could be useful of legal librarians, and the "Droit-net" list is also well known for the quality of the debates, but they are both exclusively French-speaking.
French «Blawgs» are becoming more and more important: for an almost comprehensive list, frequently updated, see on the blog Docenvrac.
Miscellaneous Legal Sites
Here is a selection of French legal "portals"(list of French legal websites):
· Droit.org (unofficial but comprehensive French legal portal)
· Le village de la justice (Juriguide)
· Rabenou (this author stopped updates, but this website has been a model for other French legal websites)