The Judicial Branch of the French Republic: Purpose & Powers

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  • 0:02 French Judicial Branch
  • 0:47 Overview
  • 1:43 Judicial Branch
  • 3:24 Administrative Branch
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

n this lesson, we explore the French judicial branch, which is the independent branch of government made up of various levels of courts, boards, and councils that administer French justice.

French Judicial Branch

It seems no matter where you travel in the United States, every level of government has a courthouse, be it your local county courthouse or the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. These various organs of our judicial system communicate with each other in nuanced ways according to the rules laid down in our constitution and the laws made by the U.S. government.

Well, the United States is not the only country with courts! In fact, most Western countries have some form of judicial system that is similar, but certainly not the same as the U.S. system. In this lesson, we will explore the institutions of and the rules and laws which govern the judicial branch of the French Republic.


The legal system of the French judiciary is based loosely upon the ancient laws of the Roman Republic. Upon that basis, French laws and criminal codes were slowly created over the centuries, as each new situation required new laws. This patchwork civil code was finally codified during the reign of Napoleon I, who created the French Civil Code in 1804.

The French courts work in similar fashion to the courts here in the United States, where there is a succession of lower and higher courts. While lower courts don't rule strictly according to the decisions of the upper courts, judges in those courts are supposed to look to earlier rulings by higher courts as guidance in their decisions.

Also like the United States, the judiciary branch is wholly independent from the legislative or executive branches of the French government. The judiciary itself is divided into two major branches: the judicial branch and the administrative branch. We will now examine each one of these in detail.

Judicial Branch

In the judicial branch, there are three levels of courts. The first of these is the district courts. The district courts generally deal with smaller, petty crimes. For example, civil cases involving sums under 10,000 euros and petty misdemeanors punishable by fines are generally settled in district courts. District court cases are heard and decided by a single judge.

Above the district courts are the regional courts. There are fewer of these courts in France, and they are evenly dispersed in the principal towns of various French regions. Regional courts deal with larger, or graver, cases, such as civil cases involving more than 10,000 euros or misdemeanors or felonies where sentences can range from six months to ten years of jail time. Regional courts are generally presided and decided by a 3-judge panel.

The highest courts in which cases are heard are the assize courts. Assize courts handle special criminal cases, such as those where the defendant is accused of murder, rape, or other serious crimes. As this court only tries special cases, it does not sit permanently; the assize courts in each region are called only a few times a year, as they are needed. The assize courts are also presided over by a 3-judge panel, but also possess a 9-person jury of the public, which, together, decide cases.

The uppermost court in France is the Court of Cassation, which sits in Paris. Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, cases cannot be appealed directly to the Court of Cassation; rather, the Court is charged with ensuring that French legal principles are properly applied in each case. The Court itself is broken up into six different chambers, and the judges in each chamber are appointed by the French president.

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