English has become the “official working language” for many companies belonging to international groups. But, keen to preserve France’s cultural heritage and to ensure safety is not compromised, French legislators have ruled that employers based in France must use French in their employment documentation.

Under Article L.1321-6 of the French Labour Code, all documents relating to employee obligations must be in French. The only exception is where documents are received from, or sent, abroad. There has been a great deal of case law in this area concerning which documents must be translated into French by employers.

As far back as 2006 the Versailles Court of Appeal ordered a company to provide a French version of any documents dealing with staff training on hygiene and safety regulations, any software and any documents relating to the products manufactured by the company and used by French employees in the performance of their duties. Other recent examples include the insurance company ordered to provide a French version of software used by its French employees and the software company that had to provide a French version of its European management software. Furthermore, bonus documentation has been held to be unenforceable where it was only provided in English.

There has been one notable exception to this general rule. In 2007 the French Courts dismissed a claim for damages from an ex-employee who had been unable to exercise certain stock options as a consequence of his dismissal. His argument that the relevant provision in the stock option scheme was unenforceable because it was drafted in English was rejected, after the Court accepted that he had signed the option grant letter and that he had “unquestionably mastered both written and spoken English”. This decision was probably largely motivated by the fact that the stock option scheme originated from the parent company located abroad and not from the employer directly. Despite the reference to “mastery” on this occasion, the employee’s actual abilities to understand other languages has not generally been seen as material.

More recently, the French Supreme Court has accepted another exception to the general rule that all employment documentation must be in French. In this case an air carrier had provided its pilots with technical documentation (including sheets enabling taxiing, take-off and landing on airports worldwide, technical support documents for the use of devices, a computer training programme and materials on the flight plan) to its pilots in English. The trade union objected and claimed that the documents should be translated into French.

Reversing the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Supreme Court held it was not necessary to provide this documentation in French. It said that “even if, according to Article L.1321-6, documents necessary to employees for the performance of their duties must be translated in French, there is an exception for such documents which are in connection with air carrier activity, the international nature of which requires the use of shared language and in order to ensure passenger 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”.

The big question now is whether the Supreme Court will extend this principle to other international workplaces such as international sales or operational management in multinational companies.