In academic terms, French law can be divided into two main categories: private law ("droit privé") and public law ("droit public"). This differs from the traditional common law concepts in which the main distinction is between criminal law and civil law.
Public law defines the structure and the workings of the government as well as relationships between the state and the individual. It includes, in particular:
Together, these two distinctions form the backbone of legal studies in France, such that it has become a classical distinction
The legal system especially underwent changes after the French revolution.
The announcement in November 2005 by the European Commission that powers recognised in a recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling underlay its intention 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.
As mentioned, the term civil law in France refers to private law, and should be distinguished from the group of legal systems descended from Roman Law known as civil law, as opposed to common law. The main body of statutes and laws governing civil law and procedure are set out in the Civil Code of France. Other private law statutes are also located in other codes such as the commercial code in the Code of Commerce, or copyright law in the Intellectual Property Code.
French criminal law is governed first and foremost by the Code pénal, or penal code, which for example formally prohibits violent offences such as homicide, assault and many pecuniary offences such as theft or money laundering, and provides general sentencing guidelines. However, a number of criminal offenses, e.g., slander and libel, have not been codified but are instead addressed by legislation.
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Constitutional law is a branch of public law dealing with:
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".
In France, most claims against local or national governments are handled by the administrative courts, for which the Conseil d'État (Council of State) is a court of last resort. The main administrative courts are the tribunaux administratifs and their appeal courts. The French body of administrative law is called droit administratif.
Traditionally, the law of the European Union (EU) has been viewed as a body of rules which are transposed either automatically (in the case of a regulation) or by national legislation (in the case of a directive) into French domestic law, whether in civil, criminal, administrative or constitutional law.
However, in November 2005 the Commission SADOS[clarification needed] announced a proposed directive based on a somewhat controversial European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision holding that the EU had the right to require its member states to introduce criminal laws because, in the case at hand, this was necessary in order to implement and uphold EU legislation on combatting pollution. The commission intended to create a dozen or so EU criminal offences, similar to the relationship of federal to state law in the United States of America. Indeed, led by its then-Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs Franco Frattini - it insisted that the principle created in this decision applied to all policies, not just pollution policy.
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 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 EU Parliament began its consideration of the draft directive in March 2007.