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French system of Jurisdiction

In academic terms, French law can be divided into two main categories: private law ("droit privé") and public law ("droit public").

Judicial law includes, in particular:

Public law includes, in particular:

Together, in practical terms, these four areas of law (civil, criminal, administrative and constitutional) constitute the major part of French law.

The announcement in November 2005 by the European Commission that, on the basis of powers recognised in a recent European Court of Justice ("ECJ") ruling, it intends to create a dozen or so European Union ("EU") criminal offences suggests that one should also now consider EU law ("droit communautaire", sometimes referred to, less accurately, as "droit européen") as a new and distinct area of law in France (akin to the "federal laws" that apply across States of the US, on top of their own State law), and not simply a group of rules which influence the content of France's civil, criminal, administrative and constitutional law.


Civil Private Law

The term civil law in its general sense refers to private law, e.g., corporate law and the law of contracts, and should be distinguished from the French legal system as a whole, also known as civil law (vs. common law). The body of statutes and laws governing civil law and procedure are set out in the Civil Code of France.[1]

Criminal Law

French criminal law is governed first and foremost by the Code pénal, or Criminal Code. For example, the Criminal Code formally prohibits violent offences, e.g., homicide, assault, etc., and many pecuniary offences such as theft or money laundering, and provides general punishment guidelines. However, a number of criminal topics, e.g., slander and libel, have not been codified but are instead addressed by legislation.[2]

Constitutional Law

Constitutional law is a branch of public law dealing with :

– human rights as applied in French law
– constitution and functionning of the public authorities and the government and, in particular the relationship between the three constitutional powers, executive, legislative and judiciary.
– relationship between citizens and public authorities, in particular the participation of French citizens to the exercise of public powers.

It fixes the hierarchy of laws and rules within the French legal system and the relationship between these different norms. Constitutional law became independent from political science and administrative law with the Constitution of 1958 which included the institution of a constitutional court, the "Conseil Constitutionnel".

EU Community Law

Traditionally, Community law has been viewed as a body of rules which are transposed automatically (in the case of a regulation) or by national legislation (in the case of a directive) into French domestic law, be it civil, criminal, administrative or constitutional.

However, in November 2005 the Commission announced that, on the basis of a (somewhat controversial) ECJ court decision (holding that the EU had the right to require Member States to introduce criminal laws because, in the case at hand, it was necessary to uphold EU legislation on combatting pollution), it intended to create a dozen or so EU criminal offences, creating echos of the federal laws which exist in the United States of America. Indeed, the Commission - led by its Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Franco Frattini - insists that the principle created in the ECJ court decision applies across all policies, not just policies concerning pollution.

Subsequently, in May 2006, the Commission formally submitted to the EU Parliament and EU Council (which have co-decision powers) the first draft directive aiming to put this new prerogative into effect. The draft concerns counterfeiting (for example, of car parts, drugs, or children's toys) and requires each Member State to set the following penalties for what it terms "organised counterfeiters": a period of imprisonment of up to four years and a fine of up to €300,000. The Parliament began its consideration of the draft directive in March 2007.



The following is a short bibliographic "essay" on selected resources, mostly available in English but also some in French, specifically for introducing a non-lawyer to the French legal system. It is necessarily evaluative but nevertheless neutral with respect to point of view.

The introduction to the French legal system currently most accessible to non-lawyers would be that provided by Wikipedia articles; see this article plus two others, and follow the various links in each:

For a clear and easily-followed outline of the French legal structure, see:

The beginner should take especial note of:

With regard to print resources, it may be best to refer to one of the 'Que sais-je?' series of "pocketbook" volumes, which provide readable short summaries; for instance:

  • Aubert, Jean-Luc. Introduction au droit (Presses Universitaires de France, 2002) ISBN 2-13-053181-4, 127 pages (many editions)

Also recommended are:

  • Cairns, Walter. Introduction to French law (London : Cavendish, 1995) ISBN 1-85941-112-6.
  • Elliott, Catherine. French legal system (Harlow, England : Longman, 2000) ISBN 0-582-32747-4.
  • Starck, Boris. Introduction au droit 5. éd. (Paris : Litec, c2000) ISBN 2-7111-3221-8.
  • Bell, John. Principles of French law (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1998) ISBN 0-19-876394-8, ISBN 0-19-876395-6.
  • Dadomo, Christian. The French legal system 2nd ed. (London : Sweet & Maxwell, 1996) ISBN 0-421-53970-4.
  • West, Andrew. The French legal system 2nd ed. (London : Butterworths, 1998) ISBN 0-406-90323-9.

For both an overview and pointers toward further study, see the excellent introduction to the "France" section in

  • Reynolds, Thomas. Foreign law : current sources of codes and basic legislation in jurisdictions of the world (Littleton, Colo. : F.B. Rothman, 1989- ) v. (loose-leaf) ; 24 cm. ; Series : AALL publications series 33 ; Contents v. 1. The Western hemisphere -- v. 2. Western and Eastern Europe -- v. 3. Africa, Asia and Australia. ISBN 0-8377-0134-1 ;

Perhaps the best single-volume treatise on the French (and other foreign) legal systems is

  • David, René. Major legal systems in the world today : an introduction to the comparative study of law 3rd ed. (London : Stevens, 1985) ISBN 0-420-47340-8, ISBN 0-420-47350-5 ; (Birmingham, AL : Gryphon Editions, 1988) ISBN 0-420-47340-8.

French legal history appears throughout most of the above. Two volumes which address the subject specifically are:

  • Brissaud, Jean. A history of French public law (Boston : Little, Brown, and Company, 1915) Series : The Continental legal history series v. 9 ; Note : A translation of pt. II (omitting the first two sections of the introduction) of the author's Manuel d'histoire du droit français.
  • Brissaud, Jean. A history of French private law (Boston : Little, Brown, and Company, 1912) Series : The Continental legal history series v. 3. Note : Translation of pt. III (with the addition of one chapter from pt. II) of the author's Manuel d'histoire du droit français.

For the original French text, see

  • Brissaud, Jean, 1854-1904. Manuel d'histoire du droit français (Paris : Albert Fontemoing, 1908).

Some other references for French legal history might include:

  • Castaldo, André. Introduction historique au droit 2. éd. (Paris : Dalloz, c2003) ISBN 2-247-05159-6.
  • Rigaudière, Albert. Introduction historique à l'étude du droit et des institutions (Paris : Economica, 2001) ISBN 2-7178-4328-0.
  • Thireau, Jean-Louis. Introduction historique au droit (Paris : Flammarion, c2001) ISBN 2-08-083014-7.
  • Bart, Jean. Histoire du droit (Paris : Dalloz, c1999) ISBN 2-247-03738-0.
  • Carbasse, Jean-Marie. Introduction historique au droit 2. éd. corr. (Paris : Presses universitaires de France, 1999, c1998) ISBN 2-13-049621-0.

See also



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