French Language Blog

The French Judiciary Posted by on Feb 15, 2016 in Culture

The American judiciary has been in the news a lot lately due to the passing of Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia. The Supreme Court, as most people know, is the highest federal court in the United States and acts as the final interpreter of all federal constitutional law.

In France, the court that interprets constitutional law is the Constitutional Council (Conseil Constitutionnel). Like the Supreme Court, it reviews laws and makes sure that the rights and laws set forth in the French constitution are upheld. However, it also works different than the Supreme Court in the United States. Normally, the Constitutional Council reviews all laws passed by the parliament and signed by the president a priori.

While the government of France is divided into an executive branch, legislative branch, and judicial branch, like in the United States, its court system is not set up as a hierarchy, as in the United States. This means that there are different courts that take on different roles in the judicial branch. For this reason, some legal scholars don’t consider the Constitutional Council to be like the Supreme Court, because it is not necessarily considered the highest and most powerful court in all circumstances.

Also unlike in the United States, the Constitutional Council is made up of a combination of former French presidents and other members who serve non-renewable nine year terms and are appointed either by the President of the Republic, the president of the National Assembly, or the president of the Senate. Former presidents who are currently involved in politics, like Nicholas Sarkozy, are unable to sit on the Constitutional Council. Today, one former president, Valérie Giscard d’Estaing, currently sits on the Council.

According to this site, the Constitutional Council has the following missions:

Le Conseil constitutionnel, créé en 1958, a plusieurs missions.

– Il est, d’abord et avant tout, chargé d’assurer le respect de la Constitution, qui est la norme suprême en droit français. Il effectue pour cela un contrôle de la constitutionnalité des lois et des traités internationaux, c’est-à-dire qu’il vérifie leur conformité à la Constitution (art. 54 et 61 de la Constitution).

Above everything else, it is tasked with assuring respect of the Constitution, which is the supreme law in the French legal system. To do this, it evaluates the constitutionality of laws and international treaties, which means that it verifies if they conform with the Constitution.

– Le Conseil constitutionnel est en outre le juge de la régularité des consultations nationales que sont l’élection présidentielle, le référendum, les élections législatives et sénatoriales (art. 58, 59 et 60 de la Constitution).

The Constitutional Council also judges the legality of national consultations, which are the presidential election, referendums, and legislative and senatorial elections.

– De manière beaucoup plus exceptionnelle, le Conseil constitutionnel est amené à émettre des avis et à constater l’existence de certaines situations (empêchement ou vacance de la présidence de la République, situation justifiant l’octroi des pouvoirs exceptionnels conférés par l’article 16 de la Constitution au président de la République).

In a much more exceptional way, the Constitutional Council issues options and notes the existence of certain situations (the president of the Republic’s impeachment or resignation, a situation that justifies the granting of exceptional powers conferred by article 16 of the Constitution to the president of the Republic).

Do you have any other questions about the branches of government in France, the rights afforded to French citizens under the Constitution, or the way in which the French judiciary works? Leave your questions in the comments!

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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!