Citizens’ challenges to statutes said to strengthen French constitutional spirit

“‘It took us more than two centuries to admit that a law could be imperfect and the people’s representatives uninspired. That a government and its majority often act too hastily, with the result that the Constitution is mistreated. That protecting the Constitution promotes liberty. usa_french_flag_imageTwo centuries to admit that, on this point, the American Revolution has been more just than the French.'”

Thus does LeMonde quote French law professors Guy Carcassone and Olivier Duhamel. (All translations from the French original mine.)  The quote appears in “Au ‘non’ de la loi,” reporter Patrick Roger’s fascinating analysis of how a 2010 law permitting private individuals to challenge the constitutionality of statutes has transformed both the theory and practice of separation of powers in France. (IntLawGrrl Naomi Norberg described the reform in this 2009 post.)

conseilAs Roger describes and constitutional comparatists well know, post-Revolutionary France relied on the view that statutes were the expression of “volonté générale,” the “general will” advanced by 18th C. political theorist Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Inroads into that “doctrine of the infallibility” of the Parlement français began with the establishment of a constitutional council, the Conseil constitutionnel, in France’s 1958 Constitution. In its 1st decades the Conseil hesitated to question laws; that changed in 1971, when the council determined that a law did not conform to the Constitution. In so doing, Roger reports, the Conseil referred not only to the 1958 document,

‘but also to the “fundamental principles” of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, reprised in the preamble of both the 1946 and the 1958 Constitutions. This “bloc of constitutionality” – that is, the ensemble of norms of constitutional stature – established the foundation on which the Conseil has constructed its jurisprudence.’

Added to this new foundation were statutory revisions that expanded the pool of potential plaintiffs, culminating in the 2010 reform. The result? Today the majority of statutes undergo review by the council; according to the LeMonde report, that fact has instilled in legislators a new awareness of their constitutional duties. Claims the Conseil‘s President, Jean-Louis Debré:

‘”The Constitution henceforth belongs to the citizenry.'”

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