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Life and Law Thanks to Napoleon

Volume XIX, Issue 30

Poster for the exhibition on Napoleon at the Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris

If you’re headed to Paris any time between now and December, you may want to put on your list of things to do the exhibition at the Grande Halle de la Villette, devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte on the occasion of the bicentenary of his death.

Painting of Naploeon on his imperial throne

According to the publicity, “This exhibition presents the extraordinary destiny of a complex character, who was both admired and controversial, victorious and defeated, heroic and tragic. It will recall his political, cultural and legal legacies that have left a lasting mark on certain countries, foremost among them France.”

A sign commemorating Napolean for the exhibit in Paris

More than anything else, Napoleon’s legacy of the Consulate and the Empire is the Civil Code, established on March 21, 1804. This legal foundation, which deals mainly with the law of persons, family, property, transmission of goods and contracts unifies French civil law. Adopted or imposed in Europe under French domination under the name of the “Code Napoléon,” it inspired the civil law of many countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy and Germany. In France, almost unchanged until the 1880’s, it is considered as the real French Constitution.

Napoleonic Code is a legal system which is in complete contrast to our own English Common Law: whereas “everything which is not forbidden is allowed.” The concept of which is that “any action can be taken by an individual or a body unless there is a law against it.” English Common Law, however, encourages out-of-the box thinking and innovation, while the Napoleonic Code encourages in-the-box thinking and following the rules.

Cartoon of Napolean by Antonio Meza for English Law Made Simple https://antoons.net/english-law-made-simple

Cartoon by Antonio Meza for English Law Made Simple

I have written about this often as I see this difference in our legal systems as the foundation for all of our cultural differences. The moment I experience a culture clash, I revert to the difference in the legal concepts and find that 99 times out of 100 it refers back to the way we as Americans perceive law…and life. If you’re an American trying to navigate in a world run by Napoleonic Code, then you could easily get tripped up.

The Paris Chambre de Notaires, which groups together more than 1,850 notaries, is taking advantage of this exceptional exhibition to raise awareness of the notarial profession. The current organization was fundamentally shaped by the Emperor, reminding us that the creation of the modern notary’s office preceded the promulgation of the Civil Code by several months. Indeed, the new Notaire’s office was created by the Law of 25 Ventôse Year XI (March 16, 1803), a year earlier.

The Civil Code unified the rules of law applicable throughout the French territory for the first time, and to all citizens, thus synthesizing the ideas of the Revolution and the law of the Ancien Régime. Family, property, contracts, responsibility—no other text will have so structured French society, then and now. The Civil Code, which has been the universal example of written law in France now for more than two centuries, itself makes the written word the foundation of the system of proof of obligations, placing the authentic act, “that which has been received, with the required solemnities, by a public officer (the notary) having the competence and capacity to act,” at the top of this evidential structure.

I grew up in Louisiana, where the closing on a property was called an “Act of Sale.” Until living in France, I was clueless that “Act of Sale” was a direct translation of “Acte de Vente,” the term in French for the final transaction of the sale of a property. This is not a term you hear outside of Louisiana and as it turns out, Louisiana is the one state in the U.S. based on a more diverse set of sources of laws, most of which derive from Napoleonic Code. The Code was not enacted in France until 1804, one year after the Louisiana Purchase but “it had the express purpose of repealing earlier Spanish law, elevating French law as the main source of Louisiana jurisprudence.” (Wikipedia.org)

The French love their Emperor and love their Napoleonic Code. They would be lost without all of their rules that make life less questionable. All one must do is follow the rules and leave critical thinking for someone else. As an American who has had the freedom of doing whatever I want unless it’s forbidden, Napoleonic Code is frustrating—I equate it to being tied in a knot as if in a straight jacket and then asked to perform somersaults…near to impossible. So, when someone retorts that the French are very good at breaking their rules…it’s because they have to if they want to survive.

In Common Law, the legal precedents matter a lot to define what is the law. All it takes to change the law is for a judge to reinterpret them in a new way. Piece of cake. In the Napoleonic civil code system, it doesn’t have the same flexibility—the text of the law comes first, and then it requires a formal legislative vote to have the law changed. So, the entire philosophy of law is different. Like in France with forced heirship laws, Louisiana follows suit: without a will, inheritance goes to the child first, not the spouse, unlike the rest of the US.

Cartoon of British legislators by Antonio Meza for English Law Made Simple https://antoons.net/english-law-made-simple

Cartoon by Antonio Meza for English Law Made Simple

Napoleon was quite a character…very ambitious, willful, intellectual and physically vigorous (even if only 5’6″). It is rumored that he had a hypnotic affect on people and easily influenced some of the world’s most powerful leaders. He was a strategist—the kind that wins at chess by seeing the future moves, but not an innovator (he must have loved his own rules!). It is said that he cheated at cards because he couldn’t bear to lose (at anything)

The Napoleonic Code system can be very difficult for someone coming from English Common Law. We have Napoleon to “thank” for some of the things most challenging to living in France and in particular, to doing business in France, with purchasing property at the complete mercy of the Code. The rules have rules, and those rules have rules. Following the rules, as I said earlier, is tough because the law is rarely clear. Deciphering the rules is the biggest obstacle for legal advisors, rather than “finding the loopholes” as we might expect in English Code.

Napoleon was famous for a whole host of brilliant quotes. Here are a few of my favorites (as perceived in today’s world):

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.”

“If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything, deliver nothing.”

“Men [and women] are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.”

“Doctors will have more lives to answer for in the next world than even we generals.”

“The surest way to remain poor is to be an honest man.”

“Water, air, and cleanness are the chief articles in my pharmacy.”

“Medicines are only fit for old people.”

“The stupid speak of the past, the wise of the present, and fools of the future.”

“Those who have changed the universe have never done it by changing officials, but always by inspiring the people.”

Meme of a famous quote by Napolean: Those who have changed the universe have never done it by changing officials, but always by inspiring the people

The main point is to expect and embrace Napoleonic code, because once you land in France, you won’t be able to avoid it.

A bientôt

Adrian Leeds in a read dress at a sidewalk cafe in FranceAdrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group®

P.S. We’re looking for workers…must be either North American or Anglophone who has cultural experience from living in North America. You must be living in France—primarily Paris or Nice and environs. You must be self-motivated and independent, willing to be challenged, enjoy working closely with clients and familiar with the sales and management of French property. Your level of French must be at least “survival” so you can navigate without too much difficulty. You must love working with people, and above all, you must be willing to learn and grow. Contact us for more information and to apply.

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1 Comment

  1. Linda Ericson-Ebelsa on August 5, 2021 at 11:24 am

    Interesting and well written as all your communications.

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