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Old 24 September 2012, 05:41 PM
Kermor Kermor is offline
Join Date: 22 June 2012
Location: Bois d'Arcy, France
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France The Napoleonic Code

From time to time, I see an urban legend about the french legal system rears its head on various sites, including this forum, and I would like to debunk it. In fact, I would very much like to see it debunked on Snopes proper, because, surprisingly, it's not listed among the Legal legends... yet. So, I will gather my (admittedly hazy) memories of the law classes I took in 1979-1980, as well as a few sites, and try to help. Here goes:

Legend: In the french legal system, you are presumed guilty until proven innocent. It's written in the Napoleonic Code.

Status: False, on at least two levels.

First, the Napoleonic Code doesn't say anything about innocence or guilt, or its presumption, or anything that has something to do with criminal law. That's because it's the nickname given to the french Civil Code because it was established under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. The french "Code Civil", as any other Civil Code everywhere in the world, deals only in civil matters: property, damages, tort and the like. It has nothing to do with criminal law. The codes that deal with criminal law, and thus with presumption of guilt or innocence are the "Code Pénal" and the "Code de Procédure Pénale".

You will tell me that, in fact, these are the two codes that say that people are guilty until proven innocent ? Well, you would be wrong. You see, just like the American justice system works according to the rules established in the Bill of Rights, the French justice system works under the rules established in the "Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen", which is one of the texts cited in the various french constituions that were drafted over the years, and is thus part of said constitutions. And the Déclaration clearly states, in its ninth article that (quoting Wikipedia) :

"As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by law."

In fact, France goes farther than the United States in protectiong the presumption of innocence. While in America, that principle is only applicable in courts, in France, since june 15th 2000, that presumption extends beyond the court. One exemple: many people were outraged here because Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the victim of a "perp walk". That's because, in his own country, he would not have been subjected to that practice. People who are arrested in a criminal case have their faces masked, either by clothes, or by having their faces blurred on TV or in pics. Their names are not given until trial day.

So here is another legend debunked

PS: I discovered that there was one article in the Napoleonic Code that dealt with presumption of innocence, but in civil matters. Article 9-1, which states, clearly, that :"Chacun a droit au respect de la présomption d'innocence" (everybody has the right to the respect of the presumption of innocence). Which, in fact, proves my point.
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Old 24 September 2012, 09:18 PM
Brad from Georgia's Avatar
Brad from Georgia Brad from Georgia is offline
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Location: Snellvile, GA
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I have a lawyer acquaintance who will study this out.

Brad "Stell-LAAAA!" from Georgia
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Old 24 September 2012, 10:14 PM
RichardM RichardM is offline
Join Date: 27 March 2004
Location: Las Cruces, NM
Posts: 4,618

Actually as I understand it, the difference between English and US common law and French law is that in the French system, there is always assumed to be a written law covering each and every action. Trials are held to determine what law is applicable. While in the English system, case law, i.e., the unwritten or what has occurred before is considered more important.

That is a weak description but dam it Jim, I'm an engineer, not a lawyer.

ETA - Here we go, from that undisputed source, Wiki: " In theory, there is thus no case law in France."

Last edited by RichardM; 24 September 2012 at 10:19 PM.
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Old 24 September 2012, 11:12 PM
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BrianB BrianB is offline
Join Date: 03 March 2000
Location: Camarillo, CA
Posts: 3,561

Originally Posted by Kermor View Post
Legend: In the french legal system, you are presumed guilty until proven innocent. It's written in the Napoleonic Code.

Status: False, on at least two levels.
My WAG for this misconception in the US would be from what Americans have heard about the Mexican legal system. From the website
Mexico's civil law system is derived primarily from Roman law as set forth in the compilation of codes and statutes of the Emperor Justinian, called Corpus Juris Civilis, and later refined in the French or Napoleonic Code of 1804.
{ snip }
D. Criminal Law.

Mexican criminal law has several interesting and distinctive features. In Mexico, one is deemed guilty until proven innocent.
In fact, I've ben told by countless people, including teachers, that the reason you are guilty until proven innocent in Mexico is due to the Napoleonic Code.

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Old 18 October 2012, 12:53 AM
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barbrainey barbrainey is offline
Join Date: 05 December 2003
Location: Phoenix Arizona
Posts: 657

I first heard about the Napoleonic Code from the 1951 film version of Tennessee Williams' "A Street Car Named Desire." Stanley tells Stella that the state of Louisiana has the Napoleonic Code which dictates that everything that belongs to the husband belongs to the wife also. Translated this meant that when Stella and her sister Blanche lost their home in Mississippl on an unpaid mortgage then Stella's husband Stanley lost it, too. However, I don't know if the Napoleonic code would apply in Mississippi as it does in Louisiana. That is, of Louisiana really does abide by the Napoleonic Code.

Barb Rainey
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Old 18 October 2012, 07:17 AM
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Don Enrico Don Enrico is offline
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No countrs today - AFAIK - does abide by the Napoleonic Code, that is, the laws written at Napoleaon Bonaparte's time in France. A lot of countries - Germany among them - have Codes of Law that are based (in part) on the Napoleonic Code rather than the English tradition of case law and unwritten law.

The German laws about ownership in a marriage are based on the Napoleonic Code, but they are far more complicated than "what belongs to the husband, belongs to the wife and vice versa".
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