French Legal Research Guide

This in-depth guide will help researchers navigate French legal materials.


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The Layout of the French Legal System

France is a civil law system which means it places a greater emphasis on statutes as found within various codes, instead of case law. The idea of stare decisis does not come into play in civil law systems as each case is decided on an individual basis according to how it relates to the codified law and how the judge chooses to interpret that law—thus two cases on the same topic could have very different outcomes. While this is one major difference between civil and common law jurisdictions, it is worth taking a closer look at France’s legal system. 

France is a republic and is currently governed by the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, which was passed October 4, 1958. There have been recent reforms (in 2008) to the constitution that have altered the law-making process, giving parliament a stronger vote in passing laws.

Government Structure

France has a quasi-presidential system in which a president is elected every five years. The president then chooses a Prime Minister from the parliamentary majority. The French parliament is made up of the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) and the Senate (Sénat). It is both chambers of parliament who pass statutes.


France has a dual system in place regarding its laws. One branch of the system is known as droit public, or public law. This branch defines the principles of operation of the state and public bodies. The other branch, known as droit privé, or private law, applies to private individuals and  private entities. 

There is also a hierarchy to French laws. In order of importance from greatest to least, laws are known as:

  • lois organiques (institutional acts akin to the Constitution)
  • lois ordinaires (ordinary acts that have been voted on by Parliament regarding matters specifically left within the purview of Parliament by the Constitution)
  • ordonnances (measures taken by the government in matters that would be normal and relevant to keep the country operating)

There are also regulations (règlements), which are issued by the executive power. Regulations be further broken down into décrets (those issued by the Prime Minister and President) and arrêtés (those issued by executive branch members who are not the President or Prime Minister). All lois, décrets, and important arrêtés are published in the official gazette (Journal officiel de la République française) which will be discussed further below.

Court System

The courts in France are also divided into two parts: judicial courts (those dealing with criminal and civil laws) and administrative courts. Public law is applied in the administrative courts (tribunaux administratifs). The highest of the judiciary courts is the Supreme Court of Appeals (Cour de cassation). There are 36 courts of appeals, 161 tribunaux de grande instance , and 307 tribunaux d’instance (the lowest level). At the top of the administrative courts rests the Council of State (Conseil d’État), with 8 courts of appeal (cours administratives d’appel) and 42 tribunaux administratifs.  

There is a third unique aspect of the judiciary in France—the Constitutional Council (Conseil constitutionnel). This branch oversees review of statutes before they are enacted as well as overseeing national elections and answering questions from citizens regarding the constitutionality of laws. The Conseil constitutionnel has nine members: three are appointed by the president, three by the head of the National Assembly, and three by the head of the Senate.