Vive la Différence! Studying Law in France

We would like to introduce a new feature here on Progressive Lawyer which explores the experiences of law students from around the world as they study the law. We hope it will be both informative for pre-law students as well as food for thought for those who may be thinking of pursuing the study of law. For our first edition, Shannon Roddy discusses her experiences studying law in France.

Shannon Roddy
Shannon Roddy

My name is Shannon Roddy and I’m an undergraduate student currently in the third year of my Law degree. I’m studying Law with Criminology in Northern Ireland and this year I availed of the opportunity to undertake a study placement year abroad. The destination I chose to undertake my studies in was the city of Toulouse in the south of France. The structure of this year consisted of a year spent studying a joint programme in Law with Political Sciences in the Law school and Institute of Political Sciences in Toulouse. Upon completion of this year I hope to achieve a qualification equivalent to a diploma in European legal studies / International area studies from my University in Ireland.

When choosing where to apply for a study placement I had the option to choose from France , Sweden , the Netherlands or Italy. I instantly expressed an interest in studying in France because I speak French and understand French. Further to this I have an avid interest in international legal relations and developments and I understand that French is widely spoken in the legal world. On a personal level the fact that the European Parliament is located in France also helped found my interest. In fact as part of this placement I will be visiting the EU parliament in Strasbourg in the next month. The legal and political influences of France are notable in the functioning of the European Union and in the UN and it has been my long-term ambition to pursue a career in International Law. Studying in France is a great eye-opener for anyone interested in International Law as a career area in particular due to the influence of French legislature in international organisations such as the UN , European Union and EU parliament.

The structure of my study placement in France consisted between six to eight modules per semester. Regarding the language of my studies I followed subjects that were 50% taught in French and 50% taught in English. Learning legislation in French and attending French lectures markedly improved my proficiency at French. I would stress to anyone wishing to study in France and specifically in Toulouse that a substantive level of French would be necessary to follow most courses although they do offer courses in English most of the Law resources here are in French. A facility I would recommend is the language centre that the University has. Personally I was able to obtain basic knowledge of German , a language I had never previously learnt and had great access to learning resources through this centre. To anyone with a minimal level of French I would particularly recommend availing of the language centre or supplementary language classes that are held by the international team at the University.

Regarding my actual classes the layout in France is very different than that in Ireland. In France they have ‘CMs’ which are termed as ‘Cours Magistrats’ and are the equivalent of lectures as well as ‘TDs’ known as ‘Travaux Diriges’ and these cover smaller classes in the form of tutorials. Being an international student I had the option to choose what subjects I wanted to study here as well as what level I was comfortable with. In the first semester I opted for masters subjects in areas such as Labour Law and Fundamental Rights Law in English and Ideologies Politique Modernes in French. Further to this I studied some third year level modules in the Institute of Political Sciences. These subjects allowed me to have better insight into issues such as the Scottish referendum and how this was viewed in wider Europe. I participated in group discussions about elections and their place in Europe today and we debated issues such as legal supremacy within Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. Learning in France can be quite interactive and we were called upon to give group presentations in class. For example , everyone was given a country in Europe and had to present the legal , political and economic developments and compare domestic law in that country and the impact of European legal instruments in this area.

In my second semester here my subjects covered have furthered my ambition to work in the area of International Law especially. This semester I covered three third level french subjects known as ‘Methodes des sciences sociales , Sociologie Politique and Histoire des idees politiques.’ These three subjects enabled me to focus on how society has shaped policy making on both a legal and political basis and got us thinking on the bigger picture as to how legislation can be amended to reflect public morale at that specific period in time. Regarding my classes in English , this semester I studied four masters subjects in Law & Economics , E-Commerce Law , International Legal Dispute Resolution and International Trade Law. A particular pattern that emerged in these subjects was the difference in practice between Civil Law countries and Common Law countries. For example , this was prevalent in International Dispute Resolution classes when we were given the task of drafting arbitration agreements to settle disputes between a civil law country (France) and a common law country (Great Britain). The key difference I observed regarding France being a civil law country was lack of case law. In Ireland we usually reference case law in response to any given situation and relate it. In France there are statutes and legislative codes and articles that are relied upon instead. Primarily here there is a ‘code civil’ and a ‘code penal’ which govern most legislative decisions whereas in Ireland we apply the individual case law.

The structure of examinations in France is different than what I have been used to in Northern Ireland. The exams are mixed between written examinations and oral examinations or in some circumstances structured in a moot style. In an Oral exam we are given leeway to express our own views on how the area of law we learnt about differs on an international scale and if possible how it can be reformed. I found this especially different as at home I am used to purely written examinations consisting of timed essays. This exam format allowed for a broader analysis of the law and how it can affect citizens in my opinion.

L’université Toulouse Capitole

Law is a very respected area of study in France and appears to be more popular here than at home. The University I have studied at in France specialised in Social Sciences due to the popularity of this subject area. In France subjects such as politics , economics , sociology and social policy all seem to be very popular and I believe this is personally because everyone I meet here has a profound interest in France as a key player on the international stage. French students undertake subjects in both French and English and many of the masters law courses are done to suit those who wish to pursue careers as international lawyers. From engaging in conversations about future career goals with French Law students I have gathered that a common goal is to travel and gain internships in places like Brussels for example. Essentially in France the system is that after following a normal Law degree the majority of students choose to specialise in a legal subject area through a Masters degree. Examples of this are Masters in Business and Commerce Law , Criminal Law and Penal Sciences , International and European Law or Law , Governance and Political Sciences. Masters in Law are held in very high esteem in France and the professors often stress the importance of a masters as well as legal internships on an international scale.

The professors here promote the concept of student participation and debate , especially allowing international students to relate about their situations in their country of origin. For example , in a politics class I was given an opportunity to relay my own personal experiences from the political landscape in Northern Ireland and able to develop upon the importance of diversity with my classmates. Other examples were allowing Spanish students opportunity to give their thoughts at the time of the independence situation in Catalonia. I feel this made classes more interesting and broadened perspectives of legal and political issues that are current and relevant to young people. A particularly interesting area was an in-class debate on the margin of appreciation on ethical issues such as Abortion and Euthanasia and how the EU member states hold different legal stances on these issues. I also attended a mock EU court session wherein a lecture auditorium was set up in the format of a moot court but on a European level with representatives from the different EU countries. For someone with interest in International Law this was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Overall I feel that studying Law in France is a fantastic opportunity and it has undoubtedly increased my confidence and independence. It is a challenge to study Law in more than one language, in a different system and through different methods but it is completely worth it in my opinion. I have come out of this year with an increased ability and legal competency regarding my knowledge of International Law and how it applies and I hope this will stand as a benefit in a future career.