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 a couple of books in the field.

Jérôme Rabenou has been the internet master of the Constitutional Council of France for ten years. He used to work for the Prime minister’s department: ANSSI, Agence Nationale de la Sécurité des Systèmes d'Information (FNISA, French Network and Information Security Agency). Since 2010, he has been working for ARJEL, Autorité de Régulation des Jeux en ligne (French online gaming regulatory authority). 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 May/June 2017
(Previously updated in Dec. 2007, Sept. 2009, and Oct. 2014)
See the Archive Version!

1. 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 was given in 2001 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".

This last link gives access to four very useful official webpages, translated into English by the European Commission Services:

1.1. Government Structure

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, François Hollande, elected in May 2012) is elected by direct universal suffrage every 5 years (revision of the Constitution in September 2000: before 2000, it was a 7-year term). 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 reports written for each major election by the OSCE - ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights - Elections). A major constitutional reform has been made in July 2008, on several institutional aspects, but especially in the Law making process. The Parliament received a stronger role in the vote of the Law. Another important aspect 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."

1.2. Types of Legislation

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 (Assemblée nationale + Sénat) 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. Those electronic databases for French legal texts were born in 1978 (available on Minitel). The Internet official service Legifrance opened in 1998. Since June 2004, French Law could also be officially published electronically on a legally binding version. (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 paper version of the French Official Gazette stopped in December 2015. Since January 1st 2016, only the electronic version available on the Internet (www.legifrance.gouv.fr) is legally binding (Institutional Act No. 2015-1712 of December 22, 2015, and Act No. 2015-1713 of December 22, 2015, dematerializing the Official Gazette of the French Republic and Decree No. 2015- 1717 of 22 December 2015 relating to the dematerialization of the Official Journal of the French Republic taken for their application : see the arrêté modifying the website Legifrance of December 22, 2015 for all the links)

1.3. The Court System

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 36 courts of appeals, 164 tribunaux de grande instance, and 307 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 42 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, called the ‘Questions prioritaires de Constitutionnalité’ (better known under their acronym QPC): priority preliminary ruling on the issue of constitutionality. 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.

For a comprehensive presentation, see the website of the Justice Department (for the presentation in English: "The Judiciary in France").

2. Parliament

The French Bicameral Parliament, or Parlement, consists of the Senate, or Sénat, (348 seats, including 12 for French nationals abroad; members were indirectly elected by an electoral college to serve six-years terms; elected by half every three years) and the National Assembly or Assemblée Nationale (577 seats, including 11 for French nationals abroad; members are elected under a single-member majoritarian system to a serve five-years term).

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.

3. Official Websites

Legifrance: Public Service of the dissemination of the Law. Contains the full text of the official gazette from 1990 consolidated statutes and decrees from 1978, all the official codes (some of them are translated into English and Spanish, see below) and links to other official sites. Several tutorials in French are available in the Main Help section (see especially the "Guide Legifrance" (in French). A good presentation of the main lines of the French Law is also offered in English in this section: About the French Legal System. Since July 2014, all the public databases are available in XML format through open data license for reuse (see in French).

Service-Public.fr: "Its design is focused on answering users' needs and on simplifying user's relations with Government agencies and services". This website includes the guide "your online 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.

Vie-Publique.fr: Official or governmental information for French citizens. It is the portal of all the public policies.

4. Ministries (departments)

Legifrance offers the "official" translations (given by the GIT (Groupe interministériel de la traduction – Interdepartmental group for translation) of each ministerial department in English, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese: see in the chapter 'Traductions' (translations) of the website.

Several websites maintain lists of French ministries (note: in French, department = 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:

5. Local Communities

The General Directorate of Local Authorities – DGCL (website in French)- belongs to the Ministry of Interior.

One can also find English access to some useful explanations.

France is divided into several administrative levels. The most important are: Région (18: 12 in continental France + Corsica + 5 overseas, since 2016, see here), Département (101), Canton (4055), Commune (app. 36500). A reform in 2015 reduced the numbers of regions. Before 2016, the 22 continental régions were 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). Since January 1st 2016, the 12 new metropolitan (continental) Régions are:. Bourgogne-Franche-Comté; Nouvelle-Aquitaine; Normandie; Grand Est; Occitanie; Hauts-de-France; Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes; Brittany; Centre-Val de Loire; Île-de-France; Pays de la Loire; Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. The 6 other ones are Corsica and the 5 overseas: French Guiana; Guadeloupe; Martinique; Mayotte; Réunion.

6. Other (Semi) Governmental Institutions and Independent Administrative Authorities

Here is a selection of some of these websites, especially those with some information for English-speaking readers:

7. Legislation (French)

Paid Subscriptions
French legislation has been officially published on paper until December 2015 in the Journal officiel (official gazette) and in several official bulletins or other official publications. Since June 2004, French Law has also been officially published electronically, with equal legally binding force than the paper version. Since January 1st 2016, there is no more paper version, and only the electronic (and free) version is available on the official website.

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), Francis Lefebvre, Juris-Classeur (part of Lexis-Nexis France, with the most comprehensive offer: "codes et lois", and the "codes bleus").

The official service named "Service Public de Diffusion du Droit par l'Internet" (Public service for the Dissemination of Law through the Internet) has now been provided on a free (since 2002) and open data (since 2014) by the Government via Légifrance. Private vendors reuse the data and offer rich data 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 whole content of the 'Journal officiel' since 1990, and also the consolidated text of all 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 has written an article titled French Law on the Internet - The Basics and Free Resources, GlobaLex (May 2005), and subsequently updated on his own blog (precisement.org) here with several other joint issues:

8. Legislation (English Translations)

Printed Sources

Internet Sources
They are rare and never officially binding. Nevertheless, the official portal Legifrance offers nine codes (out of more than seventy-five) and two main acts: 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, offer unofficial translations of legal materials: see here.

You can see also the works of:

9. Case Law (French)

Paid Subscriptions
Since 2002, the "Service Public de Diffusion du Droit par l'Internet" (Public service of Dissemination of Law through the Internet) provides case law 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 vendors offer practically the same services, improved by scholars' comments, with associated fees (Lamyline.com or WKF - Wolters Kluwer France; Lexbase). For the other courts (Courts of Appeal) a fee-based service is available from the Lexis-Nexis database called "Jurisdata" for selected decisions from 1980.

Free Internet Services
Legifrance gives the list of official websites proposing case law. More efficient lists or access methods to caselaw are here on the Jurisguide (in French from the University Paris I Law Library).

10. Case Law (English Translations)

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.

The Court of cassation opened in 2014 some webpages in English (and in other languages), and offers documents and several significant judgments of the Court of cassation. The Council of State proposes an English access to its search page (more than 280 decisions are translated).

11. Law Faculties

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). In 2014, several MOOCs have been offered on an official platform (FUN, for France Université Numérique), with several courses in legal matters, some of them are partly in English.

12. Law Libraries

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 the recent service "Tools needed by students, research workers and practitioners of French and foreign law"), or for example, Sciences-Po Paris (Library).

13. Literature

Google Book Search on French Law
LC Classification: KJV233. E43 2006
Dewey Class No.: 349.44 (22nd ed.)
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Law -- France (idem on OpenLibrary.org)


Business Law

Civil Law

Constitutional and Administrative Law

Criminal Law

14. Law Dictionaries

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

A comprehensive list of French legal glossaries (books and online) is on the website of Emmanuel Barthe (Precisement.org)

15. Citation

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:

An initiative from several French legal vendors has been released in 2016: a "Guide des citations juridiques REF-LEX", Syndicat national de l'édition. It's a comprehensive and practical guide for all types of French legal documents.

At the European level, some initiatives have to be mentioned: the "Code de rédaction interinstitutionnel" (communitarian law) (English version).

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.

16. 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 here, but the most important flow of legal information goes now through blogs.

Five Usenet newsgroups concern legal matters:

The list of the association "Juriconnexion" could be useful for legal librarians. Some other good mailing lists are also well known for the quality of the debates, but they are exclusively French-speaking.

On twitter, you can find some useful “tweets” with the search on the words "French Law", or with (in French) the hash tag #droit.

17. Miscellaneous Legal Sites

English-speaking websites or services on French legal system:

Selection of video- and podcast website on French Law:

Selection of French legal "portals" (list of French legal websites):