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France’s Judicial Revolution

PARIS – A new and important acronym has entered the French political lexicon: QPC, which stands for the rather austere-sounding “Priority preliminary ruling on the question of constitutionality.” Under QPC, which was part of the constitutional reforms that France implemented in July 2008, any citizen involved in legal proceedings can now contest the constitutionality of a legislative provision.

This is a far-reaching innovation. France has long been characterized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy, which placed the law – the expression of the General Will – at the absolute top of the hierarchy of judicial norms. As a result, a veritable allergy to assessing the constitutionality of any law has long held sway.

Not until Charles de Gaulle’s 1958 Constitution was even a limited assessment of a law by the Conseil Constitutionnel (Constitutional Council) allowed, and then only with extensive precautions. Indeed, the Constitutional Council made its assessments a priori, one month after adoption of the law, and only four officials could initiate a review: the president, the prime minister, and the presidents of the National Assembly and the Senate.

This list was broadened in 1974 to include any 60 members of the National Assembly or the Senate, thus allowing the opposition to submit the laws adopted through parliamentary majority to some examination of their constitutionality. But the idea that any citizen could challenge the constitutionality of legislation, as is possible in many European countries and the United States, was inconceivable.