UPDATE: Researching French Law
By Stéphane Cottin and Jérôme Rabenou
Stéphane Cottin is special envoy of the Secretary General of the French government. Formerly, he was the creator of the documentation office, then of the website of the Constitutional Council of France. He teaches legal research at the Institut d'études politiques de Paris (Sciences-Po) and to 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, in French, 'Petit guide d'accès à l'information juridique française'.
Jérôme Rabenou has been the internet master of the Constitutional Council of France for ten years. He now works for the Prime minister’s department: ANSSI, Agence Nationale de la Sécurité des Systèmes d'Information (FNISA, French Network and Information Security Agency). He created the first French legal newsgroup (news: fr.misc.droit), website, and mailing-list. He received an LL.M in business law from the University Paris-XIII.
Published September 2009
See the archive version!
Table of Contents
Basic Structure of the French Legal System
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, or the English version of the instruction manual of the official website Legifrance- French public service for the dissemination of the Law on the internet: "About Law".
France is a centralized country, even if the 1st Article of the Constitution seems to say the contrary ("It shall be organised on a decentralised basis"), first of all, France "shall be indivisible". The French Republic is ruled by a semi-presidential system, called 'rationalized parliamentarism'. The Head of the State (le Président de la République, Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in May 2007) 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 of the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) - and the Senate (Sénat). They both pass the Statutes (Lois).
For a more precise and accurate study, see the Final Report on the 22 April and 6 May 2007 Presidential Election in France of the OSCE - ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights - Elections), especially page 4 (Chapter III Background). Since this study, a major constitutional reform has been made in July 2008, on several institutional aspects, but especially in the Law making process. The reform has not yet been totally enacted in 2009, as some secondary Institutional Acts (Lois organiques) are still missing, and have to be voted by the Parliament for the end of summer 2009. One of the most prominent aspects of the 2008 constitutional reform is the new constitutional obligation for the Government, to publish an Impact Assessment before each Bill, in order to comply with the new European Union's strategy "Better Regulation".
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, and with the Charter for the Environment of 2004). 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). This last type of text is taken by the Government, authorized by the Parliament for a certain time, which has to validate the ordinance after this time.
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, these texts 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'). This might be useful for some databases. Since June 2004, French Law could also be published electronically. (See The Public Service of the dissemination of the French Law on the Internet', Stephane Cottin published in Review Acta Universitatis Sibiu 2005 (1/2))
The French judicial system is historically strictly divided into 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 (English access): 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 475 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). The reform of the Constitution of 2008 created a new in concreto control, and the direct access to the Conseil by citizens, but the Institutional Act is not yet definitively voted by the Parliament. The Constitutional Council is also in charge 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.
The French Bicameral Parliament, or Parlement, consists of the Senate, or Sénat, (343 seats, including 12 for French nationals abroad; members were 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 348 members, 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-years term). A reform is scheduled for the next term in 2012, and some (11) French nationals abroad will be directly elected for the first time.
The "French Republic's number three assembly" can be found in the Conseil économique, Social et Environnemental. This one has only advisory powers but it produces very interesting reports in the social, economic and environmental domains.
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) and links to other official sites. Several tutorials in French are available in the Main Help section (see especially the "Tutoriel Découverte" and the "Tutoriel Codes". A good presentation of the main lines of the French Law is also offered in English in this text: About the Law.
Service-Public: "Its design is focused on answering users' needs and on simplifying user's relations with Government agencies and services. Currently there is access in English to public sites (local, national, European, International organizations, Foreign states)". This website includes the guide "your rights and procedures" and a public service by phone (Allo Service Public 3939) which inform - in French - the user about his/her rights and obligations and directs him/her 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. It is the portal of all the public policies.
Several websites maintain lists of French ministries (department = ministère) and offer English access:
· Wikipedia notice : Council of Ministers of France
· Government Portal (no English-speaking page yet, a new version of the website opens in June 2009)
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 here.
France is divided into several administrative levels. The most important are: Région (22), Département (101), Canton (app. 4000), Commune (app. 37500). The 22 régions 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 5 overseas départements (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion and Mayotte), 6 overseas territorial collectivities with special status (Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint-Martin, French Polynesia, Wallis & Futuna and New Caledonia).
Here is a selection of some of these websites, especially those with some information for English-speaking readers:
· Post and Electronic Communications Regulation Authority (ARCEP : Autorité de régulation des communications électroniques et des postes) (English access)
· Data Inspection Board (CNIL : Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés) (new site in July 2009, no English access yet)
· Ombudsman (Médiateur de la République)
· Consumer Safety Commission (English access)
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 (part of Lexis-Nexis France, 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: Lexis-Nexis France (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 (as yet) comprehensive access to French Law.
Free Internet Services
Legifrance is 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 from before. The oldest one is from 1536! Note that the Official Gazettes sites offer several other services, including, in English, Info-Financiere.fr (regulated information on listed companies)
Emmanuel Barthe offered on this site (Globalex) a study on French Law on the Internet - The Basics and Free Resources, in 2005, constantly updated on his own blog (precisement.org) here with several other joint issues:
The global and open initiative between several universities and public services created the unofficial portal Droit.org , with a page dedicated to all the works on French Law in English language.
· 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 and 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 (Lamyline.com or WKF - Wolters Kluwer France; Lexbase ; Juripro (now part of Thomson). For the other courts (Courts of Appeal) a fee-based service is available from Jurisdata for selected decisions from 1980.
Free Internet Services
Legifrance gives the list of official websites proposing case law. Another way to access this list is via droit.org (most of the links are broken), more efficient lists or access methods to caselaw are here on the Jurisguide (Paris I) or on ServiceDoc.info (Stephane Cottin).
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 its 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 jurisdictions 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 and the Codices Database.
The Institute of Global Law (Pr. Basil Markesinis, University 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: click here.
Incidentally, there is English access to the official portal Edutice on Teaching with Information and Communication Technology (use the acronym "TICE" in French). There is not (yet) English-speaking access to the free online lessons of the UNJF (Digital French-Speaking Law University)
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 resources), or for example, Sciences-Po Paris (Library).
LC Classification: KJV233
Dewey Class No.: 349.44 (22nd ed.)
· French Legal System, by Catherine Elliott, Catherine Vernon, Eric Jeanpierre, New York : Longman, 2006, 376 pages , ISBN 978-1405811613
· 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
· A History of French Public Law (Law Classic) by J. B. Brissaud (Paperback - Aug 2001) ISBN 978-1587981012
· 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, a second edition 2000 is available ISBN 978-0198763956, and a third one published in march 2008, ISBN 978-0199541393
· 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
· French Business Law in a Box (CD-ROM - Sep 1, 2006) ISBN 978-1905507375
· French Arbitration Law and Practice by Jean-Louis Delvolve (Hardcover - Oct 2003) ISBN 978-9041122254
· The French Civil Code by John H. Crabb (Translator) 2002, Kluwer Law International; ISBN 90 6544797 0
· French Property and Inheritance Law: Principles and Practice by Henry Dyson (Paperback - Oct 25, 2003) ISBN : 978-0199254750
Constitutional and Administrative Law
· French Administrative Law And the Common-law World by Bernard Schwartz and Arthur T., II Vanderbilt (Hardcover - Dec 30, 2006) ISBN 978-1584777045
· 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
· French Criminal Law by Catherine Elliott (Paperback - May 2001) ISBN : 978-1903240304
Dictionnaire juridique français-anglais / anglais-français: Law Dictionary French-English/English-French, by Bénédicte Fauvarque-Cosson et alii, ed. Dalloz, 2004, ISBN 978-2247058228
The most common French law dictionary is Vocabulaire Juridique, by Gérard Cornu, ed. PUF, 2007, ISBN 978-2130559863
There is no official method of legal citation in French. Private and public editors have their own systems and their own abbreviations. However, on this excellent website Jurisguide, you will find some examples and practical exercises of translation of French legal citations:
For information on French legal bibliography (University of Montreal, Canada, in French): Bibliothèque de droit and especially this chapter on the meaning of the abbreviations in French legal bibliography. Finally, here you can find some URLs on how to refer to a document in a legal thesis or article.
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 here, but the most important flow of legal information goes now through blogs.
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 for 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 the portal Juriblogs, this chapter of the Open Directory (DMOZ) Français: Sciences: Sciences humaines et sociales: Droit: Droit français: Weblogs or the Wikio ranking of the French legal blogs.
English-speaking websites or services on French legal system:
· Research guide for France originally compiled by Paul Norman, Spring 1990. Updated by Gerry Power, Access Librarian, March 2002, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (School of Advanced Study, University of London)
Selection of video- and podcast website on French Law:
· French Law in action (dir. Claire Germain, Cornell Law School)
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)