As the official language of the Republic according to the Constitution, French represents an essential part of both the personality and the national heritage of France.  (…)”. (art. 1 of the 7 August, 1994 law on the use of French language).  

Anxious to preserve a fundamental element of the French cultural heritage, legislators have imposed the compulsory use of French in employment contracts.  Article L.1321-6 of the French Labour Code provides that all documents containing employee obligations must be drafted in French, the sole exception being documents received from, or sent, abroad.  However, English has become the official working language of many international employers.  How far must employment documentation be translated into French by the employer?  Does it matter that the employee may be perfectly able to read other languages, English in particular?   

In 2006 the Versailles Court of Appeal ordered a GE Group company to provide a French version of non-contractual documentation dealing with staff training on hygiene and safety regulations, and relating to the products manufactured by the company and used by French employees in the performance of their duties.  

This case has been followed repeatedly since then.   Examples include:  

  • an insurance company ordered to provide a French version of a software programme necessary for the performance of the duties of some French employees  
  • a software company required to create a French version of its European management software.  Its support application (which was a French explanation on how to use the English language software) was deemed inadequate  
  • a ruling last year that the English version of documents setting out targets for the payment of a variable bonus were not binding on the employee   

As an exception, an employee claimed in 2007 for the loss of rights to exercise stock options as a consequence of his dismissal.  The scheme limited his rights to exercise options to the duration of his time with the company. He claimed that this condition was not enforceable as the scheme document was in English only.  Somewhat surprisingly given the other cases referred to, the Court dismissed his claim, noting that he had signed the grant letter and that “he unquestionably mastered both written and spoken English”.  This decision was probably (the detail of the reasoning does not appear in the case) motivated by the fact that Stock Option schemes usually originate from the parent company located abroad and not from the employer directly.  Certainly the employee’s abilities in English had not previously been deemed a relevant factor in any of these cases.    

Another “external influence” exception arose recently: an air carrier delivered technical documents in English to its pilots (sheets enabling taxiing, taking off and landing on airports worldwide, technical support documents, computer training program, materials on the flight plan).  A trade union claimed that the documents should be translated into French since the pilot “had difficulties” using these documents. The Court of Appeal of Paris consistently with its earlier strict interpretation of Article L.1321-6, upheld the employees’ claim and ordered the employer to provide a French version of the documents.  The Supreme Court reversed this judgment, exempting from article L. 1321-6 “such documents which are in connection with air carriers activity, the international nature of which requires the use of shared language and in order to ensure passengers safety, employees (namely pilots) are required as a condition precedent to their employment, to be able to read and understand technical documents drafted in English.”  We have thus another exception to the legal obligation to ensure a French translation, i.e. where the employees must by law be able to operate in English.   

The question is now whether the Supreme Court will extend this exception to other necessarily international workplaces such as the maritime industry, international sales or the management team of multinational companies, where the reality is that the employees may understand something written in English just as well as in French.  It is tempting to think that eventually reality must take precedence over a rigid assumption that only French language documents can be guaranteed to be understood, whatever the ethnic background of the employee in question.