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Every country has its collection of strange laws but some weird French laws really should be struck off the books: they’re too ancient, too old-fashioned, or simply too stupid.
Some weird laws in France actually still make sense, despite their age, and it’s easy to see how or why their application might make life a little easier.
Others can be frustrating, like the one about frogs (#10 below).
And yet others will simply make you laugh at their implausibility.
But they're all... very French.
Many laws contained in the Civil Code, also known as the Napoleonic Code, date back to Napoleon Bonaparte, who died more than 200 years ago.
I’m not a lawyer and I can’t vouch for the existence or validity of these laws beyond the references I’ve added, should you doubt my word. Beware, though, these references are from French government websites and are, of course, in French. Sorry about that, but in this case, it’s French or nothing… I don’t expect you to read them, but they’re there to prove my point.
Time may have forgotten these laws, but perhaps it should make an effort to remember: they can be stuffy, antiquated, ridiculous, or simply useless.
Are they valid or are they just stupid French laws? Whatever we think, I’m sure some lawyer or bureaucrat somewhere would be quick to tell us just how essential these might be.
This refers to the oldest law in France, the Edict of Villers-Cotterêts, issued by King François I in 1539. The law was wide-ranging, dealing with everything from justice to centralization. All its provisions have been superseded – except Articles 110-111, which replace the then lingua franca, Latin, with French.
However well-meaning the law, it only applied to the elite in France, especially useful in disseminating administrative documents. As for the general population, it would take a while longer to abandon their Occitan or their Provençal…
These two articles remain in effect today and still used by the Cour de Cassation (France's highest court). French habits die hard.
In many countries, first cousin marriages would be considered incestuous. Not in France.
Here’s who you CAN’T marry in France:
Do you see “first cousin” anywhere? No you don’t. It’s not there.
But what if you desperately want to marry your aunt or grand-father?
You can, under certain circumstances, but the President of France must first authorize it. What I haven’t been able to find out are what those “certain circumstances” are… (Article 164 of the Civil Code)
It would appear (I haven’t been able to find this one) that a 1910 law forbids you from French kissing in a French train station.
It might delay the train.
Of course, should the King come by… he’ll need some for his horses. I haven’t found a legal reference for this outdated law either, but others swear it exists. I could easily believe it existed, once upon a time.
This is truly one of those strange French laws and seems to apply only if the dead person had the intention of marrying you in the first place.
There’s a hitch, though: the President of France has to give his OK.
Here’s how Article 171 of the Civil Code lays it out. Say you were about to get married but your future spouse died before you had a chance to tie the knot. What then?
Well, if the President agrees, the surviving spouse can still get married, and the marriage will be dated the day before his or her death. I’m not quite sure how the ceremony would unfold… In truth, you can count a handful of posthumous marriages in recent years.
Here's some unexpected legal ground: you won’t be punished for your theft, because they cannot file a complaint against you.
Sounds ridiculous, right? I have no idea what’s behind this one, but it’s true. According to Article 311-12 of the French Penal Code, you can’t press charges against family members for theft.
But of course, there are exceptions, for example, if those documents are essential, like a passport or identity papers. Your brother steals those? Head straight for the police station.
If you’ve had a fight and haven’t spoken to your child for years, no matter, the law is clear: your son or daughter still inherits (the amounts are fixed by law).
A number of articles in the Civil Code deal with this and French inheritance law is complex. Bottom line – everyone gets an equal share.
There is a major exception: if your child commits murder or manslaughter, or criminally contributes to someone’s death, he or she can be categorized as “indigne”, or unworthy, and excluded from your will. The remaining assets are then redistributed equally.
Family ties are strong here.
Careful. You could be fined up to 15,000 and spend up to a year in jail − at least that’s the case if there’s a chance someone might see you. And double it if a minor might see you.
Article 222-32 of the Penal Code deals with exhibitionism and sexual harassment, and prohibits you from being naked inside your own home if there’s a chance someone might see you.
There are plenty of shades of gray surrounding this law and heaps of exceptions, nonetheless, you can be stepping naked out of your shower and if someone sees you, they could press charges.
Talk about time to buy those blackout curtains!
This funny law is a classic, and is often the first quoted of the strange French laws still in existence. It would have been designed to respect the Emperor’s image, way back when.
Except for one thing.
No one can find any legal source for it. It may have existed. It may not have.
So if you really really want to name your cochon Napoléon, you might just get away with it.
This is an intriguing one, as I have a pond full of loud frogs for several weeks in summer.
According to what has got to be one of the weirdest French laws, if the frogs make too much noise, the neighbors can complain. If they win, they can have your pond sealed or destroyed.
But this creates a bit of a legal conundrum. What happens to the frogs?
You see, in France, frogs are a protected species
According to Article L415-3 of the Environmental Code, anyone who damages these protected species or their environment can be fined up to € 150,000 (USD 162,000) and punished with three years in jail.
If you’ve ever been to a French work cafeteria, you might remember your surprise at seeing small bottles of wine and beer right next to Coke and bottled water. While this is a disappearing habit, it’s perfectly legal.
But to be on the safe side, Article R4228-20 of the Labor Code does have a provision banning even these drinks when employee health is threatened or if the company’s internal rules forbid alcohol. The law doesn’t say you have to sell these drinks at work – it just says you can.
Not every weird French law is impossibly hopeless, and you can see the thinking behind some of them even today. Whether you agree or not, though, that’s a different story.
Here, then, are some laws whose rationale you might glimpse (if you look hard enough!)
Yes, even with adult children. You can thank Napoleon, yet again.
According to Article 173 of the Civil Code, parents can oppose marriage of their children. Grandparents can do the same, so make sure you get that prior permission.
Of course this can’t be simply because they don’t like your future husband… there has to be a good reason, and these include the discovery of bigamy, the absence of consent, or forced marriage.
According to Article 57 of the Civil Code, if the name you’ve chosen might go against the child’s rights or wellbeing, the Registry Official can let the Justice Ministry know, who can then refer the case to Family Court.
If the name is judged against the child’s interest, the judge can ask the parents to come up with something more sensible, or change it himself.
So don’t try to be too original… or your excess of originality may be punished with the most banal of names.
This is a bit of an oldie and was adopted by the Vichy government in 1942, at a time of widespread tuberculosis. The law appears to still be on the books, although it is virtually unenforceable.
If anything, has been strengthened. In 2016, the prohibition was extended from the sidewalk and “public space” to public transportation. And with the arrival of the Covid pandemic, fines were tripled for public health reasons.
No spitting on the bus, please!
Although someone forgot to tell French men.
That’s right, it’s illegal to eat in your office or factory (unless a Labor Inspector says it’s all right).
Article R4228-19 of the Labor Code wants to make sure you leave your desk at lunchtime. Remember, the French have the longest lunch hours and with France’s gastronomic meal now protected by UNESCO, lunch is no laughing matter.
As with a similar law in Quebec to safeguard French culture, France has a cap on foreign music. A 1994 law, called the Loi Toubon after the minister who enacted it, set a French music quota forced French radio stations to make sure at least 40% of the music they aired was French. The move, combined with French copyright law, has been a creative stimulus for French artists.
Controversial when it was passed in, Law 94-665, as it is also known, now enjoys widespread support.
Its reach goes far beyond music. By favoring French over English creep, it has made sure all basic information is available in French, from work contracts with foreign multinationals to French language instruction manuals.
This one is familiar to me, because the rules are relatively strictly enforced where I live, at least for everyday citizens (farmers can reap at any hour).
Sunday mornings, on the other hand, are fair game, which seems a little counterintuitive. After all, isn’t Sunday morning a day to sleep in? Do you really want your sleep shattered by a lawnmower?
According to France’s National Noise Council, you can go ahead and run your drill or mix your cement at very specific hours in the morning and afternoon from Monday to Saturday, and on Sundays and holidays, mornings only.
It’s true, but it’s rarely enforced: those 20,000 glittering night lights are considered art, and as such, are protected by copyright. Legally, you need permission to publish photos of the Eiffel Tower at night.
In practice, the Eiffel police would be kept awfully busy if enforced.
But if you want to take pictures to show your family back home, then snap away!
I haven't found references for these, but I'm assured they exist. They certainly sound as though they could!
Sometimes, a mayor or local or regional authority might pass a law which applies to its own community but would make little sense beyond. Here are a few of those…
Clearly, the weird laws list isn’t going anywhere soon.
Clearly, France has its fair share of weird laws. The good news is that some of them are being repealed.
For example, a 200-year-old law forbidding women to wear trousers in Paris was on the books as late as 2013, although exceptions would be made in certain circumstances, for example when riding a horse. Women's rights and gender equality can be slow.
And potatoes were apparently illegal in France during the 18th century, as they were believed to be poisonous and to carry disease.
Thankfully for French Fries and fashion, legislators saw the light.
Efforts have been afoot to sweep away obsolete or ridiculous laws, some of which have been around for centuries and need a dust-off. The commission created to undertake this work has a rather unfortunate acronym… BALAI, which means broom in French.
And there’s a principle in France whereby ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law.
So if you happen to have run out of hay at home or unwittingly stepped out of the shower soaking wet and naked, you can still be punished.
Just don’t fret. The police have better things to do!
France is incredibly idiosyncratic (some just say weird!) but we take pride in that originality. If you're curious about this more offbeat side of France, read this article about our strange culinary habits...