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Britain is a common-law country in which the system of justice depends heavily on custom and precedent. By contrast, France is a civil law country where the legal system is based entirely on a body of written law. A system of administrative justice was laid down by Napoléon I in the Code Napoléon, which was later also adopted by other countries. Today there are 55 codes (compilations of laws, decrees, and circulars) governing all branches of French law. Amongst these are the Code Civil, the Code Pénal, and the Code Fiscal. In France there are actually two judicial systems: administrative and judiciary.
The administrative system is responsible for settling lawsuits between the government and the individual. This provides French citizens with exceptional legal protection. Suits are brought to the 22 Tribunaux de Premiére Instance and appeals may be made to the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State). This is one of the most prestigious bodies in France. One of its roles is to advise the government on the conformity of proposed legislation with the body of existing law. Running parallel to the administrative system is the judiciary which is responsible for civil and criminal cases. The criminal courts include the Tribunaux Correctionels (Courts of Correction), the Tribunaux de Police (Police courts) and the Cours d’Assises (Assize Courts), which try felonies. Appeals are referred to one of the 28 Cours d’Appel (Courts of Appeal). All court decisions are subject to possible reversal by the Supreme Court of Appeals (the Cour de Cassation). All judges in France are career professionals who must pass a very competitive examination. In criminal courts the judge has a more active role in the case than in Britain and conducts most of the questioning of the witnesses. A French jury is actually a mixed tribunal where six lay judges sit with three professional judges. A two-thirds majority of this ‘jury’ may convict. The jury of peers (as used in the UK) was abolished in 1941 in France.
More than ever before, the French judicial system has been at the heart of national life in the last five years, with the Socialist government ending the traditional political control of judges which was generally used to thwart political corruption investigations. The result has been an astounding number of investigations, but few actual trials, of the main right-wing political elite, with the closest attention centering on President Chirac himself, who faces a number of unanswered major charges of bribery and grand fraud from his time as Mayor of Paris. The new right-wing Raffarin government has been swift to introduce a string of tough new measures to strengthen the various police forces, and cut back on public disorder offences ranging from organized mafia-style violent crime, to juvenile delinquence, to prostitution and even illegal rave parties. The crackdown on crime is being led by two ministers: Nicolas Sarkozy, who is the Interior Minister, and Dominique Perben, who is the Justice Minister (known in France by his ancient title of the Garde des Sceaux, or Keeper of the Seals).
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