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Crime and punishment: Understanding French legal language

From following the legal troubles of certain ex presidents to keeping up with your favourite French cop show there are certain French legal terms that you will need to understand. Here's an A-Z of the language of law.

A French magistrate arrives at a hearing in Paris.
A French magistrate arrives at a hearing in Paris. Read our guide to understanding French legal vocab. (Photo by FRED DUFOUR / AFP)

The French legal system is composed of various law codes and statutes, chief among them is the Napoleonic Civil code which has inspired legal codes around the world. 

Understanding the legal jargon around the French justice system can be confusing – for a start there are more than a dozen different kinds of tribunal. 

Here’s our rundown of some of the most common terms:

Accusé – In French the accusé is the person who has been accused of breaking the law. 

Acquittement –This term means “acquittal” and is used when someone has been found not guilty by a criminal court (cour d’assises).

Amende – An amende is a fine that must be paid into the public purse after an offence has been committed eg the €135 amende for not wearing a face mask on public transport.

Face mask signs also warn of the ‘€135 d’amende’ in case of non-compliance. Photo by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP)

Amende forfaitaire – This is a fine that can be paid to avoid criminal sentencing. This can be ordered by a judge or, in the case of minor offences, as an on-the-spot fine by a law enforcement officer – as is the case for people caught smoking weed in public. 

Appel – This translates as “appeal” and designates the normal appeals process for people who want to contest a legal decision. Such appeals are initially heard by the cour d’appel. The person making the appeal is known as l’appelant and the legal body against which the appeal is made is called l’intimé. 

Appeals of judgements made by a criminal court are referred to another criminal court rather than a standard appeals court. 

Arrêt – This refers to a decision or judgement made by a court in France. 

Assasinat – This is the French word for murder/killing. It can be used interchangeably with meurtre (murder). The word for manslaughter, or accidental killing, is homicide involontaire. Murder is punishable by up to 30 years in prison in France, can result in life imprisonment if combined with other crimes. 

Astreinte – This is a financial penalty that can be imposed by a judge, requiring the guilty party to pay a fixed penalty every day, week or month. It may be imposed if the fine to be paid as a one-off fine exceeds the financial capacity of the guilty party.

Assignation – This is a subpoena – or a court summons. 

Audience – An audience refers to the moment that a court session takes place: where lawyers make their arguments, witnesses are heard and sometimes, where judgement is passed.

An audience foraine is used to refer to a court hearing that takes place outside of the jurisdiction where the offence took place or where the trial was initially scheduled. 

An audience solennelle is an annual meeting of magistrates and legal clerks, typically held at the beginning of the year, where they review cases judged over the previous year. 

Audition – This refers to the questioning of victims, the accused and witnesses. An audition can be led by a magistrate or law enforcement officers.  

Avocat – An avocat is a lawyer – and confusingly, also the word for an avocado. 

An avocat au Conseil d’Etat et à la Cour de cassation is a lawyer employed by the state who represents clients at a criminal court in the case of an appeal based on judicial irregularities in the initial sentence. You can generally get such representation for free.

An avocat général is a lawyer who represents the French justice ministry if it has been accused of wrongdoing. 

Ayant-droit  – These are terms typically used in inheritance law. The ayant-droit is someone who acquires the rights of someone else, such as being entitled to the deceased’s pension. 

Barreau  – This is the term used to describe the bar – lawyers who are officially registered with a French high court. 

Bureau de l’exécution des peines – After a sentence is passed, this is the service charged with working out the practical arrangements for how the penalty will be implemented with the guilty party. 

Cas de force majeure  – This refers to an unforeseen event that can be argued by an accused person to exempt them from legal responsibility for their actions. The court decides what counts as a cas de force majeure on a case-by-case basis. 

Cassation – This is the word used to denote the cancellation of a judgement following an appeal. 

Caution – This is the name of the person who commits to paying money in the place of the person who owes it. 

Centre de détention – This is a detention centre/prison/penitentiary facility for people over the age of 18. 

Centre de placement immédiat – This is emergency accommodation for people aged 13-18 who have been directly or indirectly caught up in legal troubles. 

Centre de semi-liberté – This is a kind of penitentiary facility where prisoners can come and go, normally under strict curfew. 

Centre éducatif fermé – This is essentially juvenile prison for repeat offenders aged 13-18. You can be sentenced to stay in such a facility for renewable periods of six months. As the name suggests, education of the young person continues while they are detained. 

A centre éducatif renforcée is the same thing, but for first time offenders. Stays in such a facility are generally shorter. 

Chambre de l’instruction – This is a court room where appeals are examined.

Chambre du conseil – A civil case closed to the public takes place in a chambre du conseil. This can be ordered by the head of a jurisdiction to prevent public disturbances. 

Chancellerie – This is the word used to describe the central administration of the Ministry of Justice. 

Classement sans suite – This is the term for when the Justice Ministry decides to dismiss a case if a complaint is dropped, there is insufficient evidence or the guilty party cannot be identified. Such a decision can be overturned as long as the statute of limitations for the alleged incident hasn’t passed. 

Commission rogatoire – This is when a judge asks another judge or law enforcement officer to take on his/her duties. 

Comparution – This means court appearance 

Condamnation – This is the word for condemnation – when someone has been found guilty.

A condamnation avec sursis is a suspended sentence whereby the guilty party does not need to go to prison unless they commit another crime within five years. 

A condamnation definitive is the sentence given once all appeals processes have been shut down. 

A condamnation par défaut is when someone is sentenced in their absence. 

Conseil Constitutionnel  – This is the Constitutional Court charged with deciding whether the actions and laws of the government are in accordance with the constitution.

Many of the government’s Covid restrictions were referred to the Conseil Constitutionnel since in normal times severe restrictions on personal freedoms like lockdowns would be entirely against the Constitution. The majority of anti-Covid measures were upheld, but the court did introduce changes to some measures, for example introducing time limits and ruling that bookshops were essential and should stay open.

Conseil d’Etat – This is the highest court for litigation within the French public administration. It also plays the role of legal adviser to the government. You can find a full explanation of its functions HERE.

Contravention – This is the least serious kind of offence you can commit in France and can result in a maximum fine of €3,000. 

Examples of contravention include hunting without a license (le défaut de port du permis de chasse) and breaking the speed limit (excès de vitesse). 

Contrôle judiciaire – This is a penal measure that can be ordered by the judge prior to a trial or court hearing. It may involve the accused being barred from meeting with certain people, visiting certain places or leaving the country. Breaking a contrôle judiciaire can result in a prison sentence. 

Cour d’assises – This is the criminal court where cases including murder, theft and rape are heard. 

Cour de cassation – This is a high court based in Paris which examines whether decisions taken in lower courts have conformed with the law.  

Cour de Justice de la République – This is a specialised court charged with judging members of government for acts committed in their exercise of power. It’s currently conducting an investigation into several current and former government ministers over their handling of the Covid crisis. 

Cour des comptes – This is a specialised court in charge of scrutinising public finances. 

Cour d’appel – This is the appeals court. 

Crime – Of all the categories of offences that can be committed in France, crimes are the most serious. These offences are typically punishable by prison sentences.

Being convicted of a crime can affect your immigration status, while the lower-level offences of délit or contravention are usually not taken into account when it comes to apply for a renew a visa/carte de séjour.

Examples of crimes in France include: rape (viol), murder (meurtre), torture (torture), violent robbery (vol avec violences graves), fraud (escroquerie) and espionage (espionnage).  

Délit – This is a mid-level criminal offence sanctioned by up to ten years in prison, a fine and community service. 

Examples of délits include: theft (vol), sexual assault (agression sexuelle), manslaughter (homicide involontaire) and drunk driving (la conduite sous l’emprise de l’alcool), carrying a weapon (le port d’arme). 

Demandeur – Legal jargon for the person who makes an initial claim with the French justice system to initiate civil proceedings.

Détention provisoire – This is a measure that can be ordered by a judge to incarcerate someone prior to a court hearing. This can only happen under strict conditions, usually when the person is judged a risk to public safety.

Enquête judiciaire – In a civil case, this is where witnesses or experts are questioned by a judge in order to obtain evidence. In criminal cases, an enquête judiciaire is carried out by a special legal branch of the police. 

Fiché S –  In France, a fiche S is part of a national database called the Fichier des Personnes Recherchées (FPR), which is a database of wanted criminals or people on watchlists that was created in 1969.

The letter S stands for ‘state security’ and there are different types of fiches S, with numbers going from S1 to S16 so when someone is described as fiché S, it means that they are suspected of being a threat to state security – it normally is used to classify people identified as potential terrorists. 

It’s become part of the language and you sometimes hear people joking about being fiché S if they express a controversial option – eg that potatoes belong in a Salade Niçoise.

Garde à vue – Someone who is mis en garde à vue has been arrested and placed in custody. Law enforcement officers can hold a suspect in a police or gendarmerie station for a maximum of 24 hours under these conditions – and state prosecutors must be informed.

A stay in custody can be increased to 48 hours by a prosecutor and for certain suspected offences, such as terrorism, to 96 hours. Someone placed in custody has the right to speak with their family or with a lawyer within one hour of their detention. Being garde à vue does not mean that the person has been convicted of any offence.

Garde des Sceaux – This is a term used to describe the Ministry of Justice. 

Haute Cour de justice – This is a specialised court tasked with judging acts committed by a French President in their exercise of power. 

Huis-clos – This is a civil or criminal court hearing which is held without members of the public present. Court chiefs can order this kind of hearing if there is a risk to public order or that state secrets will be divulged. Any judgement that emerges from such a hearing will always be given before a public audience.

Huis-clos can also be used in a more generalised sense for any normally-public event held behind closed doors, for example sports matches played without a crowd.

Infraction – This is the French word for any action that breaks the law. There are three types of infraction: contraventions, délits and crimes

Instance – This refers to any kind of dispute brought before the court. 

Instruction préparatoire – This is the term for the process in which an investigating judge will gather all the necessary witnesses and evidence for a trial begins. 

Jugement – This refers to a decision passed by a court. There are many different kinds.

A jugement avant dire droit is a decision that comes before a person or entity is sentenced. It could included calling for an expert witness for example. 

A jugement contradictoire is a decision passed once both sides have presented their arguments. 

A jugement par défaut is a decision passed following a trial during which the defendant was not present. In some circumstances, this can be appealed. 

A jugement sur le fond is when a judge rules on what evidence can be considered at trial. 

Libération conditionnelle – This is when a prisoner is released early for good behaviour under certain conditions. They may have to meet regularly with a probation officer for example. 

Litige – This is the word for a legal disagreement that could lead to judicial proceedings. 

Magistrat du ministère public – This is a term used to describe public prosecutors. 

Maison centrale – This is the term for a maximum security prison, reserved for the most dangerous criminals. 

Maison de justice et du droit – This generally used to describe a small provincial courtroom. They are typically used to examine minor offences. 

Maison d’arrêt – This is a prison for people who sentenced to no more than two years. 

Mandat d’arrêt – An arrest warrant ordered by a judge. 

Milieu ouvert – This is a term to describe alternative incarceration methods to full-time imprisonment. These may include being placed in semi-liberté or libération conditionnelle. The opposite is a milieu fermé which means a sentence must be served in prison. 

Ministère de la Justice – The French Justice Ministry. It overseas the justice system and suggests changes to the law to parliament. 

Ministère public (Parquet) – These are public prosecutors charged with representing the interests of society and public order by applying the law and prosecuting criminals. 

Mise en examen – A judge can order an investigation into someone suspected of committing a crime or délit. This is often translated into English as being ‘charged’ with an offence, although it’s not exactly the same thing. It means that a preliminary investigation has concluded that the person potentially has a case to answer, but unlike under the US or UK legal systems, the investigation continues once a person is mise en examen.

Notaires – These are law professionals named by the state who have the right to draw up legally binding contracts in areas such as real estate and marriage. They are regulated by public prosecutors. 

EXPLAINED The reasons you will need a notaire in France

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Personne morale  – This is a legal entity – such as a business – that can be accused of breaking the law. A personne morale can of course face fines, but could obviously not go to prison. 

Plainte – This is a very common word in the French legal lexicon. It means complaint/grievance/accusation. If someone porter plainte with the police, gendarmerie or prosecutor, it can trigger legal proceedings. For less serious offences it is also possible to porter plainte en ligne – register your complaint online.

Police judiciaire – These are specially trained police and gendarmerie officers under the director authority of the public prosecutor. 

Procédure – This is code for the collective of rules imposed by the law that the French judiciary must respect with regards to the rights and freedoms of citizens. 

Procureur de la République – This is the term for chief public prosecutor. These professionals receive plaintes and are able to launch judicial proceedings. 

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Témoin – This is a witness and it’s used in a more general sense for witnessing something, as well as in the legal context. 

Témoin assisté – This is someone who is the subject of a plainte and for whom there is some evidence to suggest their guilt. The lawyer of a témoin assisté has the right to examine the dossier before trial begins. 

Tentative (de crime ou de délit) – This is a term to describe an attempted offence eg tentative d’assassinat – attempted murder. Attempted crimes can also carry stiff penalties.

Tribunal –This is the word for a court composed of a sole or multiple judges. There are many different kinds of courts, as you have probably already gathered by this point and a lot of them are judge-led, as jury trials are not used for every type of offence. 

A tribunal administratif is charged with resolving legal disagreements in French public services. 

A tribunal correctionnel is charged with judging délits

A tribunal de commerce is composed of judges elected by businesses. It aims to resolve disputes between businesses. 

A tribunal de grande instance is in charge of judging in civil cases sanctioned by more than to €10,000 in fines. 

A tribunal de police is tasked with judging the most serious category of contravention. It is formed of police officers themselves who have received special training. 

A tribunal d’instance is in charge of civil cases with potential fines ranging between €4,000-10,000. In this respect, it is the little brother of the tribunal de grande instance. 

Verbalisation – This is the act of giving a fine, which can be performed by a magistrate or law enforcement officer, you’ll often see it in official announcements eg 2 000 verbalisations pour non-respect du couvre-feu – 2,000 people fined for breaking curfew.

Viol – This is the word for rape. It is the most heavily sanctioned sexual offence and classified as a crime and can result in a 15-year prison sentence (or life imprisonment for repeat offenders). 

Other sexual crimes include: sexual assault (agression sexuelle), sexual offence on a minor (atteinte sexuelle sur mineur), pimping (proxénétisme) and paying for prostitutes (solliciter des relations sexuelles d’un prostitué). 

Vol – Not to be confused with viol is vol – theft. It is considered a mid-level offence, or délit, in France. Perpetrators risk prison and a hefty fine. 

For a full list of legal definitions, in French, you can access the Ministry of Justice website here

Member comments

  1. A very comprehensive and useful list. You could have added the term “Bâtonnier” – the president of a “Barreau”

  2. Thank you. I’ve been waiting for this since I first suggested it. Very helpful when reading the newspapers.

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The new French words added to the dictionary

The latest edition of France's Larousse dictionary set to be published this June, and it has announced it will add 150 new words.

The new French words added to the dictionary

Each year, France’s Larousse dictionary holds up a mirror to society, showing its evolution by making official the words and phrases that were most important in the year previous. This year, in preparation of its 2023 edition, the dictionary added 150 new words, which according to the publishing company, “testify to both the vitality and diversity of the French language.”

These are the words that have gotten people talking the most:

Covid long

After over two years of Covid-19, it is not surprising that a number of coronavirus-related words have entered the dictionary. “Covid long” refers to the condition of lingering Covid-19 symptoms, sometimes for weeks or months after infection. Other Covid-19 related words and phrases that are now included in the Larousse are: passe vaccinal (vaccine pass), passe sanitaire (sanitary pass), vaccinateur or vaccinatrice (vaccinator), vaccinodrome (vaccine center), and distanciel (at a distance).


The noun “wokisme,” which made headlines and sparked controversy this past year, is now defined by the Larousse as follows: “Woke-inspired ideology, centered on questions of equality, justice and the defense of minorities, sometimes perceived as an attack on republican universalism.”

Le séparatisme

Another word reflective of the political climate in France, “Séparatisme” has been added to the dictionary under the definition “the will of a minority, usually religious, to place its own laws above national legislation.” A lot of times, you will see this word in debates surrounding religion and immigration.


Grossophobie” is defined as “a hostile, mocking and/or contemptuous, even discriminatory, attitude towards obese or overweight people.” In English, this word is “fatphobia.”


The rise of tech and all things crypto is not specific to the anglophone word. Now, the English acronym, NFT, has made its way into the French dictionary, defined in French as “Les jetons non fongibles” (Non-fungible tokens). 


Finally, the Larousse dictionary added plenty of words with non-French origins, like “Halloumi” which is a type of cheese made from mixed goat and sheep’s milk that is originally from Cyprus.

The Larousse 2023 will also include other new words from different foreign languages, like konjac (a Japanese plant), kakapo (a New Zealand parrot), tomte (a Swedish elf) and yodel (a singing technique from the German-speaking Alps).

These are just a few of the 64,000 words that will be included in the 2023 version of the dictionary.