Criminal law can be described as the body of rules defining the behavior that constitutes criminal offences and their respective sanctions.

The law of criminal procedure, in simple terms, regulates the way investigations and trials are performed and the way suspected individual are investigated, charged and tried.

Under French law, criminal offences are divided, according to their seriousness, into three different types of criminal action.

Contraventions/breaches (“Contraventions”)

These are the least serious offences, they are themselves divided into 5 different types of “classes”, in accordance with their seriousness.

The Courts which have jurisdiction over these contraventions are called “Tribunaux de police”.

Driving in excess of the speed limits, acts of violence causing limited harm are examples of Contraventions.

Serious criminal acts (“délits”):Drug trafficking, burglary, intentional or unintentional manslaughter are examples of “délits”. The “délits”, by far, constitute the widest category (in theory and in practice) of criminal offences.

The Courts with jurisdiction over such offences are the “Tribunaux correctionnels”.

Very serious crimes (“crimes”)

Under French law the term “crimes” defines a very specific type of the most serious criminal offences.

Rape, murder, international drug trafficking or acts of terrorism are good illustrations of what might amount to a “crimes”. They are dealt with by special courts, called “Courts d’Assises”, in which professional judges and jurors sit together.

In addition to these three legal subdivisions a further summa division can be made among the various offences, between “white collar” and “blue collar” criminal offences.

White collar crimes can be defined – in a simple fashion – as complex, sophisticated, and relatively technical offences. They often involve executives or legal entities. Antitrust violations, frauds of different

types (credit card, bankruptcy, healthcare, mail, securities…), environmental law violations, tax evasion, insider trading, bribery, are good examples of white collar crimes.

Blue collar crimes are – in theory – more basic or common offences, such as theft, drug trafficking, rape, murder, etc.

It should be noted that under French law, individuals as well as legal entities (such as corporations, partnerships, etc.) can be found guilty and sentenced consequently.

The French criminal procedure can be divided into various stages of “key acts” :

  • The “Garde à vue” (situation in which an individual is placed under police custody) : The “Garde à vue” is a measure of constraint in which a police officer holds a person without his/her consent, in the local offices of the police or of the gendarmerie (i.e. military branch of the French police), for a limited period of time. A person who is placed under “Garde à vue” will be interrogated by police officers and can be confronted with other alleged offenders or witnesses/victims. Under certain circumstances and conditions, the home or car can also be searched by the police.
  • Preliminary investigations (l’enquête préliminaire) : The preliminary inquiry or police investigation is conducted by the police on their own initiative or at the public prosecutor’s initiative.
  • Judicial investigation (the “information judiciaire” or “instruction”) : A judicial inquiry is the investigation that is performed by and/or under the supervision of an Investigating Magistrate (“Juge d’Instruction“) or group of investigating magistrates.


In France, there are principally three types of Courts with jurisdiction over criminal matters : The Tribunaux de Police, the Tribunaux Correctionnels and the Cours d’Assises.

The Tribunaux de Police (i.e. Police Courts) have jurisdiction over the least serious criminal offences, the “Contraventions”. As a consequence, these courts cannot decide jail sentence.

The Tribunaux Correctionnels have jurisdiction over the criminal offences called “Délits”.

These Courts can sentence defendants to pay fines and/or to imprisonment. Depending on the type of “Délit”, a series of additional penalties can also be decided in addition (e.g. withdrawal of driving licence, dissolution of partnerships or of corporations…).

Finally, the Cours d’Assises preside over the most serious criminal offenses, the “Crimes”. These Courts are the only jurisdictions in France which are, in part, made up of juries. Nine jurors (twelve on appeal) sit with three professional judges. Jurors are simply citizens and not professional judges. As opposed to US Courts, both professional judges and jurors take (at least in principle) an equal part in the verdict. In practice however, it is the case that professional judges often play a major role in the final decision