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Features - Researching French Law

By Stéphane Cottin and Jérôme Rabenou, Published on March 15, 2001

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 a LLM in public law, and a special diploma (DESS) in computerized documentation. He has published several articles in French and in English in law reviews, and a guide, 'Petit guide d'accès à l'information juridique française'.

Jérôme Rabenou is the Internet master of the French Constitutional council (http://www.conseil-constitutionnel.fr). 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 LLM in business law.


Table of Contents

Basic Structure of the French Legal System
Government Structure
Types of Legislation
The Court System
Parliament
Official Websites
Ministries
Local Communities
Other (Semi) Government Institutions
Legislation
French
English Translations
Case Law
French
English Translations
Law Faculties
Law Libraries
Literature
Textbooks
Law Dictionaries
Citation
Discussion Lists
Miscellaneous Legal Sites

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).

Government Structure

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) is elected by direct universal suffrage every 5 years (revision of the Constitution in September 2000). The President designs a Prime minister from the parliamentary majority. Parliament shall comprise the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) and the Senate (Sénat). They both pass the statutes.

Types of Legislation

France is ruled by a strict hierarchy of norms. Overall norms 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), ordinance (ordonnance)...

The executive power have 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 received a number under the shape "99-1234" since 1945. For 2000, the number is under the shape "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.

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 information, there is also 35 courts of appeals, 181 tribunaux de grande instance, and 473 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 7 cours administratives d'appel and 35 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.

For a comprehensive presentation, see the website of the Prime Minister.

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Parliament

The French Bicameral Parliament or Parlement consists of the Senate or Sénat (321 seats - 296 for metropolitan France, 13 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) and the National Assembly or Assemblée Nationale (577 seats; members are elected under a single-member majoritarian system to serve five-year terms)

The "French Republic's number three assembly" can be found in the Conseil
économique et Social (http://www.conseil-economique-et-social.fr/ces_dat2/english/frm_1.htm).

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Official Websites

  • Legifrance: "The essential of the Law". Contains the official gazette from 1990, statutes and decrees from 1978, all the official codes, 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 more than 4.760 public sites (local, national, European, International organizations, Foreign states)"

  • Internet.gouv.fr: Everything you need to know about the French Internet policy.

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Ministries

Several websites maintain lists of French ministries 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.

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Local Communities

General Directorate of Local Authorities - DGCL.

You can also find English access to some useful explanations on http://www.premier-ministre.gouv.fr/en/p.cfm?ref=6782 and 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)

22 regions are Alsace, Aquitaine, Auvergne, Basse-Normandie, Bourgogne, Bretagne, Centre, Champagne-Ardenne, Corse, Franche-Comte, Haute-Normandie, Ile-de-France, Languedoc-Roussillon, Limousin, Lorraine, Midi-Pyrenees, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Pays de la Loire, Picardie, Poitou-Charentes, Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur, Rhone-Alpes.

Metropolitan France is then subdivided into 96 departments. France counts also 4 overseas departments (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion), 2 overseas territorial collectivities with special status (Mayotte, Saint Pierre and Miquelon), 2 overseas territories (French Polynesia and Wallis & Futuna) and finally New Caledonia.

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Other (Semi) Government Institutions and Independent Administrative Authorities

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Legislation

French

Paid Subscriptions

French legislation is officially published (paper) in the Journal officiel (official gazette) and in several official bulletins.

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 concrete offer: "codes et lois").

The official service is conceded by the Government to ORT, part of Reuters, with Jurifrance. Some other private editors offer practically the same services with associated fees (http://www.lamyline.com; http://www.lexbase.fr).

Free Internet Services

Legifrance has offered the content of the 'Journal officiel' (but the third part, not really useful) since 1990 (before January 2001, it only offered since 1998), and also the consolidated text of a great part of Acts (Lois) and decrees (décrets).

The private portal droit.org offers another practical way to access French legislation (English access: http://www.droit.org/english.html).

English Translations

Printed Sources

  • 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

Internet Sources

They are very rare. A project that is under development is the official portal Legifrance. Some institutions offer unofficial translations of legal materials like Bank of France or the Ministry of Justice.

You can see also the work of Stéphanie Burke (Harvard), or the work of Mirela Roznovschi (NYU).

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Case Law

French

Paid Subscriptions

The official service is also (see above) conceded by the Government to ORT, part of Reuters, with Jurifrance. The same private editors offer practically the same services with associated fees (http://www.lamyline.com; http://www.lexbase.fr). Only caselaws of the three supreme courts (Cour de cassation, Conseil d'Etat, Conseil constitutionnel) are available in full text since 1986, and in selection from the early 1960s (approximately 25 French Francs a decision). For the other courts (Courts of Appeal...) a fee-based service is available from Jurisdata for selected decisions from 1980 (approx. 90 FF a decision).

Free Internet Services

Legifrance gives the list of official websites proposing case-law. Another way to access this list is via droit.org.

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 his Yearbook (ed. Dalloz). Some international organizations may offer some selected caselaw, like for 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.

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Law Faculties

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Law Libraries

The most important law library in France is Cujas. The whole catalog of the library (4 million of items) is online. Others libraries have electronic access (see below), including the National one:

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Literature

Textbooks

General

  • 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

Civil Law

  • The French Civil Code (As Amended to 1 July 1994) by John H. Crabb (Translator) 1995, Fred B Rothman & Co; ISBN: 0837704677

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

Criminal Law

  • 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

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Law Dictionaries

  • English-French Glossary of Legal Terminology, Terms Commonly Used in Public and Private Law by L. Pollak 1996 Carswell Legal Pub; ISBN: 0459233459
  • The most common French law dictionary is Vocabulaire Juridique, by Gérard Cornu, ed. PUF, 2000, ISBN: 2-13-050600-3

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Citation

There is no official method of legal citation in French. Private and public editors have their own systems, their own abbreviations.  However, on these excellent websites, 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:

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:

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Discussion Lists

Several French law lists have been created. Most of them are not really discussion lists, but one-way lists (see http://static.lexbase.net/bookmark/doctrine/push/index.html). Discussion lists, properly speaking, can be found at http://listes.cru.fr/wws/lists/droit or on the "Francopholistes."

Two usenet newsgroups concern legal matters: news:fr.misc.droit 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.

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Miscellaneous Legal Sites

Here is a selection of French legal "portals" (list of French legal websites):

  • Rabenou (this author stopped updates two years ago, but this website is still a model for other French legal websites)
  • Droit.org (unofficial but comprehensive French legal portal)
  • Lexbase (list of websites of a private legal editor)
  • Le village de la justice (Juriguide)
  • La porte du droit
  • Droitconstit.org (concerns exclusively constitutional law)

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