The French Civil Code or Code Civil, 21 March, 1804 : an overview

Author(s) : DELAGE Irène
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The context

As early as the 15th century, the royal houses of France instigated the collection of laws regulating human relations – some Roman laws based on the Justinian code, and other based on common custom, the former being written down (and having jurisdiction not only over France but also Alsace) and the latter oral, customary and essentially local, naturally open to abuse. It was often from bitter experience that people would utter the saying, 'God preserve me from the law'!
Firmly in the tradition of the enlightnement, the Revolutionary Assemblée Nationale tried to put order in the chaos by passing a decree on 2 September 1791 ordering the redaction of a 'Code des lois civiles du royaume' (Code of civil laws for the kingdom), naming Cambacérès (link)  as president of the 'Comité de Législation' (Legislation Committee), the body appointed to draw up the code.
But the instability of the period made it impossible to adopt the different projects presented in 1793, 1794 and 1796. 

Redaction and discussions of the Code civil

After the Second Italian campaign (link), Bonaparte asked Cambacérès to take on once again the task of leading a commission appointed to draw up a code of laws – the Consular bill was passed on 24 Thermidor, An VIII (18 August, 1800). the commission comprised two jurists specialising in common/customary oral law – Bigot de Préameneu and Tronchet – and two jurists specialising in written law – Maleville and Portalis. It took only four months to compose the articles – many had presumably already been written and Cambacérès had already published some of his initial work in the Discours préliminarie du projet du code civil in 1796. However, once written the articles had subsequently to be discussed in the Tribunal de Cassation, the Tribunaux d'Appel, and finally in the Conseil d'Etat. During the sittings of the Conseil d'Etat, with Napoleon in the chair (or Cambacérès when the FIrst Consul was absent), which began on 17 July, 1801, the discussions between the partisans of the two legal styles, common and written, were 'free and frank'. The First Consul took advantage of the annual renewal (by ballot) of a fifth of the members of the Corps législatif to pass a sénatus-consulte in March 1802, by which he gave himself the power to appoint the members of the corps and therefore to create an atmosphere favourable to his project.

The Code civil: contents and form

Comprising 36 laws and 2,281 articles, arranged in 3 parts consecrated to people, goods and property, written in a clear and concise style so as to avoid any ambiguity, the Code civil was “a body of laws designed to direct and fix social, familial and commercial relations betwen men of the same city” (Portalis: Exposé général).
More traditional than some of his more Revolutionary colleagues, Bonaparte left his mark on the Code civil by reimposing the superiority of the husband and father in the family context. Women passed from being under the control of their fathers to beeing under the control of their husbands, and were unable to perform any juridical act or administer their goods without their agreement – they were not even permitted to exercise freely the profession of their choice. It was only after the age of 25 that children were no longer under the authority of their father and could marry without asking his permission. Fathers were also permitted to send their children to places of correction in cases where they thought the child's behaviour unacceptable. Finally, nationality was trasmitted only by the father – the only people who could be French were those whose father was French. There were other measures which retained more of their Revolutionary inspiration, such as that concerning divorce (which was permitted only by mutual consent) and the equality of children in terms of inheritance. Adoption, only authorised for people who had reached the age of responsibility, was similarly regulated by the Code civil.  


The new laws concerning property swept away the feudal traditions (some of which centuries old) and formed the basis of profound and lasting social change. Furthermore, the Code civil, both in France and in continental Europe, fixed in the peoples' minds ideas such as the fundamental rights and duties of man, equality, citizenship, freedom of conscience and expression, and the protection of property.  
The work of the Code Civil was completed by the adoption of a code of civil procedure in 1806, a Code de Commerce in 1807, a Code d'Instruction Criminelle in 1808 and a Code Pénal in 1810. Finally it was in 1807 that the Code Civil took on the name, the Code Napoléon.

Trans. P.H.

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