Be knowledgeable: use updated terminology in your French contracts or legal translations

The 2016 reform of the French contract law, entered into force on October 1, 2016, has two main objectives: reinforce the legal security of transactions and make the French contract law more attractive to stakeholders, especially at the international level. To be deemed safer and more attractive, the law must be precise, clear, and readable.

To that effect, dusting off some outdated terminology of contract law was necessary, and a substantial number of terms have been changed. The vocabulary used in the new ordinance is contemporary and should be better understood by the layman. This exercise of simplification aims at making the law “more accessible**” to citizens and more appealing for international business relationships. It also reinstates that the Civil Code is the epicenter of the general law of contract, thus reaffirming the place of written law in the French legal system.

Let’s start with a basic definition: what is a Contract? The former version of article 1101 provided that a contract is a convention which binds one or more persons, towards another or several others, to give, to do, or not to do something. [“ Le contrat est une convention par laquelle une ou plusieurs personnes s'obligent, envers une ou plusieurs autres, à donner, à faire ou à ne pas faire quelque chose”]. The definition was overhauled to now specify that a contract is an agreement of wills concluded between two or more persons intended to create, amend, transfer or satisfy obligations [“un accord de volontés entre deux ou plusieurs personnes destiné à créer, modifier, transmettre ou éteindre des obligations”].

It is certainly noticeable that the term Convention has been dropped, and that the term Contract [le contrat] is now used throughout the ordinance.

Below is a partial comparative table presenting key terms or expressions under prior law (still in effect for contracts concluded before October 1, 2016), and those used in the new law.

Former Terminology Terminology in effect from 10/1/2016

acte sous-seing privé (former art. 1108-2) acte sous signature privée (art. 1175)

enrichissement sans cause enrichissement injustifié (art. 1300)

(expression stemming from case law

vice d'abus de l'état de dépendance (art. 1143)

répétition de l’indu (former art. 1235) restitution de l’indu (art. 1302)

objet certain … cause licite (former art. 1108) contenu licite et certain (art. 1128)

caducité (art. 1186)

condition potestative (former art. 1170) condition dont la réalisation dépend de la seule volonté du débiteur (art. 1304-2)

contrat de bienfaisance (former art. 1105) contrat à titre gratuit (art. 1107)

les bonnes mœurs (former art. 1133) l’ordre public (art. 1102 et 1162)

devoir d’information (art. 1112-1)

information confidentielle (art. 1112-2)

promesse unilatérale (art. 1124)

pacte de préférence (art. 1123)

obligation sans cause obligations essentielles (art. 1170)

avantage manifestement excessif (art. 1141 et 1143)

copie fiable (art. 1379)

changement de circonstances imprévisible (art. 1195)

exclusion de l’exécution forcée en nature

s’il existe] une disproportion manifeste

entre son coût pour le débiteur et son

intérêt pour le créancier (art. 1221)

The reform introduces some new terms, while other expressions are essentially a work of case law codification, or are borrowed from legal authors. The terminology is modernized, sometimes even pedagogic, as the reform includes a few definitions of new terms - like for the preferential agreement (“pacte de préférence”).

Being aware of the evolution of law will enable translators to fine-tune their work and be ahead of the curve, thus avoiding translation mistakes.

* Ordinance No. 2016-131 adopted by the French government on February 10, 2016 reforming the French civil code provisions on contract law, the general regime and proof of obligations.

** Rapport to the President of the Republic pertaining to the ord. N. 2016-131, February 10, 2016, reforming the contract law, the general regime and proof of obligations: JO Febr. 11, 2016.

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