French Contract Law is a quite old field of law, considerably rich from an intellectual standpoint. It is interesting to point out some of its basic features to non-French lawyers, students and scholars.
The contract is binding upon the parties, by the mere fact that it exists. However, the contracting parties may strengthen their commitments with some specific clauses. For instance, a penalty clause or a cancellation clause can be inserted in the contract.
The penalty clause provides for an amount of money to be paid by the debtor when he/she doesn’t perform its obligations, or when he/she does it improperly. This amount of money corresponds to the compensation for the damage caused by said non-performance. In case such provision is not inserted, the judge shall assess the damage by himself/herself. In case a penalty clause is provided, the judge can reduce the amount when it appears to be clearly excessive – this remains an exceptional situation where the judge can modify the contract.
The cancellation clause provides that the contract will be terminated in the event that one of the parties doesn’t perform its obligations, of if another event takes place, as set forth by the parties.
Role of the judge
The French judge can be requested by one of the parties to enforce the contract. In doing so, the judge frequently has to interpret the contract. Interpretation can lead the judge to add some obligations into it.
The judge can also be requested to cancel the contract, or to declare one or several clauses invalid. In the case of partial cancellation, the contract can still be valid, apart from the invalid clauses, or it can be totally cancelled.
As a rule, the judge cannot modify the contract to restore balance in the contractual relationship.
By Bruno DONDERO,
professor at Paris 1 Panthéon – Sorbonne University