Legal news

Documents provided to French employees must be written in French

« Every man has two countries : his own and France. » – John F. Kennedy said that to Charles De Gaulle in 1961 while he was in Paris. This is particularly accurate when it comes to employment law.

Indeed, Article L. 1321-6 of the French Labor Code provides that any document containing employee obligations or that is necessary for an employee to perform his or her job must be written or translated in French. This rule does not apply to documents received from abroad or are provided to foreigners.

Employees mainly invoke the aforementioned rule in order to challenge the enforceability of variable remuneration’s plans and ask for backpayment of commissions or bonuses.

The French Supreme Court (Cour de cassation) recently issued two decisions ruling that such plans have to be written or translated in French. Those decisions simply involve applying a well-established case law related to the use of English language in a professional context but constitute a valuable reminder for international companies with a French subsidiary.

In the first case, a company adopted a « pragmatic » approach considering that as an employee was fluent in English and as English was the common working language within the company, it may be exempted from the abovementioned requirement. Therefore, it only drafted and communicated the employee’s commission plan in English. The French Supreme Court considered that such document was not enforceable (French Supreme Court, 6/7/2023, n° 20-21.332).

In the second case, an employee of a subsidiary of a U.S. company also challenged the enforceability of documents setting targets to receive variable compensation that were written in English. In this matter, the company working language was also English. Following the same reasoning as in June, the French Supreme Court sustained the employee’s request as there were no evidence that documents were received from abroad (French Supreme Court, 10/11/2023, n° 20-21.332).

The main practical consequence of such situations is that the employee is entitled to the full amount of his variable compensation, which can be very costly for the company, notably if it concerns several employees.

Regarding the exception for documents received from abroad or provided to a foreign employee, it seems that in that case the employer is released from its obligation to provide a French translation. However, in practice the risk that a judge considers the exception not applicable still exists.

In any case, employers must keep in mind that the international nature of the company’s business or organization could not justify the use of another language than French. Therefore, they cannot be too careful by always ensuring a French translation or even better, a bilingual document.