A Comparative Analysis of the French Court System and the American Judicial System

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Table of Contents

  • Comparison of the French Judicial System and the American Judicial System
  • Introduction
  • Constitution
    Code of Law
    Judicial System
  • Conclusion

Comparison of the French Judicial System and the American Judicial System


France is often recognized as the birthplace of democracy, a fountain of modern political views. America, also devotedly democratic, may be expected to have a similar judicial structure to France. However, France and America have quite a number of differences that set these distinct judicial systems apart.


The United States of America and France both have ratified Constitutions that shape their law and also organize their judicial branch. A compare and contrast between the two countries’ Constitutions should illuminate upon some fundamental differences that separates the two countries’ legal system.

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The United States of America ratified the United States Constitution on June 21st, 1788. The Constitution was created to outline the role of the federal government. The Constitution mainly divided the government into three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. This created a system of checks and balances that limited each branch from controlling all the power of the United States. The executive branch places the President at the head of the executive branch, elected through an Electoral College system. The legislative branch divided Congress into two houses: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Regional votes elect people to Congress for them to create laws and represent their region. For the judicial branch, the Supreme Court was granted to power to act as the highest federal court. State judicial systems were left untouched by the Constitution; however, the Constitution did install ten amendments that served to guarantee state and individual rights. These ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights and they protect rights such as “powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution…are reserved to the States respectively” and the freedom of speech, religion, and assemble. Various amendments have been added to the Constitution over the years, which expand these rights to minority groups as well as implementing new powers to the federal government.

The French government adopted their current Constitution on October 4th, 1958. It is called the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. The constitution’s preamble sets France as a secular democratic country. The Constitution of the Fifth Republic also divides the government into three branches: the executive, legislative, and the judiciary. A President also heads France; however, the President is directly elected in France, needing to gain over 50% of the French approval. The legislative branch, unlike the American Congress, is a Parliament system; on the other hand, the French Parliament is also bicameral like the US Congress. The President, unlike America, usually selects a Prime Minister, the head of government, from the Parliament. Beyond these differences, there are different standards for human rights. The Constitution of the Fifth Republic also reflects a high respect for human rights. For example, the French Constitution explicitly bans the use of the death penalty, a gray area for American politics. Moreover, France is a core member of the European Union. Under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, sovereignty regarding legislation and law is limited, especially compared to America, which has nearly no supranational limitations. For example, the first title of the charter states a right to life that extends to even human cloning and eugenic practices, limiting potential science and ethnic clashes.

The French and Americans both follow a guiding Constitution that sets their government and provides a strong basis for their laws. However, the type of government that is established is rather different as is the extent of human rights that are protected by each Constitution with America providing a larger possibility of human right infringement. Yet, America does exercise larger freedom over their law due to an absence of supranational surveillance.

Code of Law

The French and American judicial branches function differently under different codes of law. France relies of the civil code while America relies on common law, a fundamental difference that sets these judicial systems miles apart.

America functions under a code of law called Common Law. Common Law derives from England. It is called “Common” because judges of the king followed each other’s decisions in order to create a unified consistent law throughout England during the rule of Henry the Second. Common Law refers to law that is created through prior court decisions. Opposed to following the statutes and regulations, the decisions of previous cases and cases of higher courts are the guidelines to judgment. America has accepted this English system of law and relies upon stare decisis. For instance, the decisions of the Supreme Court are binding precedents for federal courts. This is only possible because the United States of America functions under Common Law.

France courts rely upon the Civil Code. Civil Code is also known as “Code Civil” or “Code Napoléon”. “Code Napoléon” was made by Napoleon to reform France’s legal system in order to make it more consistent with the ideals of the French Revolution. Previously, France did not have laws but rather local customs and royal proclamations. Inspired by ancient Roman law and French local custom, Napoleon created the Napoleonic Code, which established central laws that are still applicable in France as well as the concept of rule of law today, as well as the concept of rule of law. Civil Code promotes judges to stick to the statutes and ordinances in process of making a verdict. Previous adjudications do not influence any court’s decision. Unlike America, the Supreme Court is simply the final court of appeal but their verdicts do not force any court to follow their decisions.

Judicial System

America and France have entirely distinct judicial systems. The methods in which courts are organized are very different; however, there are some similarities between the two systems.

America divides their judicial branch into state and federal courts. Each state has jurisdiction over cases that involve their own residents and state law matters. There are local trial courts in which all cases start. If unhappy with the verdict, parties can go to an appeal court in order to ask for a reinterpretation of the law. The final appeal court is the state supreme court, which provides the case with a final irrefutable verdict. Federal courts have jurisdiction over certain cases. These cases must be a federal question, have diversity of state citizenship, or be a case of a sum of controversy over $75,000. The United States of America provides 94 district courts all over the country as a trial court. Thirteen circuits of appellate courts called the US Circuit Court of Appeals hear appeals from lower trial courts that fall under their jurisdiction. The final court is the US Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court also holds the power of judicial review, having the ability to proclaim laws unconstitutional. Special cases such as cases regarding the military, tax, and bankruptcy are handed to courts such as US Courts of Military Review, US Tax Court, and US Bankruptcy Courts.

Either a single judge or a jury judges cases in the United States. Parties have the power to select either a judge or jury to preside over their case. Except for the Supreme Court, a single judge sits and decides on the verdict of a case. In the case of the Supreme Court, Congress selects a number of justices who listen and judge the final verdict of their cases.

France also severs its judicial branch into two parts. The basis for division is the type of case that is presented to the courts. There are personal cases and public cases. Personal cases refer to cases between citizens. Regardless of civil and criminal cases, all cases between citizens are handed to the Ordinary Courts called “Ordre Judiciare”. Cases that involve the government or public officials as a party are sent to the Administrative Courts, “Ordre Administratif”. A court exists to distinguish which case belongs to which type of court. That court is called the “Tribunal des conflits”. They categorize the cases and send them to the appropriate courts in times of confusion. Once sent to the proper courts, trials and appeals proceed according to order.

The “Ordre Judiciare” is a private court. Like America, there do exist local and regional courts. However, the sole reason such a division exists is due to the size of France. These local and regional courts do not hold exclusive jurisdiction in any matter. They are all federal courts. One of the most important private courts in the “Ordre Judiciare” is the “Tribunal d’ Instance” and the “Tribunal de Police”. The “Tribunal d’ Instance” is a court for civil matters. They hear property claims of that amount to less than 10,000 euro and other civil matters that have occurred in the district. The “Tribunal de Police” is also a district court; however, these courts deal with criminal matters. The cases of the “Tribunal de Police” deal with petty crimes. The “Tribunal de Police” deals with petty offenses such as parking tickets and speeding. Furthermore, the “Tribunal de Police” also may judge civil cases which amount to less than 4,000 euro. “Tribunal de Grande Instance” is a regional court that hears claims over 10,000 euros. The “Tribunal de Grande Instance” is also a court for civil claims like the “Tribunal de Instance”. The “Tribunal de Correctionel” is a criminal court for the local level and deals with slightly more serious felonies such as sexual harassment. For these courts, only a judge can make a verdict and for all courts there is only one judge in power.

Serious crimes such as rape, murder, and manslaughter are also sent to the courts of “Ordre Judiciare” since both parties are usually normal citizens. A special court called the “Cour d’Assises” deals especially with cases of murder and other extreme crime. The “Cour d’Assises” is the lone court in France with a jury. Like American courts, a jury empowered with the ability to judge and bring a verdict to a case. However, three judges are also included in the jury with nine other citizens, creating a twelve-man jury.

The “Conseil Constitutionnel” is the court especially with the power of judicial review. While America provides judicial review to the Supreme Court, the “Conseil Constitutionnel” exclusively holds judicial power. The “Conseil Constitutionnel” reviews legislation, which may be unconstitutional. After legislation passes Parliament and before the President signs it, the court determines whether the law is constitutional. Furthermore, citizens may ask the council to review certain laws and amendments in terms of their conformity with the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. The judges for this court are former presidents of the Republic who are appointed by selection and nine members who have nine-year non-renewable terms. The President, the president of the National Assembly, and the president of the Senate with each president appointing three members each appoint these nine members.

Like America, special courts exist for certain types of law. Like the US Court of International Commerce, France has the “Tribunal de Commerce”, a court especially geared to handle matters regarding commerce and property law. Several different types of court exist that are not to be found in America. the “Tribunal des Affaires de Sécurité Sociale” deals with problems with Social Security. The “Tribunal Paritaire des Baux Ruraux” is a court for real estate issues. The “Conseil de Prud’hommes” hears disputes regarding labor and companies. America does not provide separate courts for such cases.

Much like America, France does provide a court of appeals. Like America’s US Court Circuit of Appeals, France’s Cour d’Appel deals with the appeals from all trial courts of the Ordre Judiciare. The Cour d’Appel is not divided by region like the United States does; types of cases divide the court with different division dealing with appeals from certain areas. After this court of appeal, cases from the Ordre Judiciare are left to a supreme court, the Cour de Cassation. This court is the highest possible level of appeal in France much like America’s Supreme Court. The decisions made by the Cour de Cassation are final; however, they are not binding. The Cour d’Appel has three judges in the room when listening to an appeal while the Court of Cassation must have between seven to fifteen judges in the chamber in order to make a verdict.

The Ordre Administratif has a much more simple structure. There is a lone trial court for the Ordre Administratif: the Tribunal Administratif. The Tribunal Administratif hears complaints or legislation that are about public officials and their conduct in office. Public officials include all government officials as well as educators in public academic institutions. After the trial, the appellate court, the Cour d’Administratic d’Appel, takes appeals much like the American system. Finally, a supreme court, the Conseil d’Etat, serves as the final court of appeals, concluding a structure that highly resembles that of US state courts.


France and America have many differences in their court systems from the method of organization to the type of laws that they consist of. In our study of law, we fail to closely investigate the judicial systems and viewpoints of law in a foreign perspective. Such a comparison shows that there exists more than one road to justice.

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