My husband was recently lamenting the loss of the second of his original law partners to a judicial appointment, this time to the Supreme Court of Virginia. When I mentioned that such a scenario would be extremely rare in France, the conversation segued to the differences between the American and French systems for selecting and training judges. Below is a short overview of the French system.
The diverse methods by which judges are selected in the United States greatly contrast with the French approach where emphasis is put on judicial education before starting judicial service, and recruitment is uniform throughout the country. Potential judges and prosecutors are selected through competitive examinations that allow them to attend the Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature (ENM – National School for the Judiciary), which was created in 1958 and located in Bordeaux, a thriving city filled with historic attractions and nestled in the heart of wine country. By entering the School, the selected candidates generally start a civil service career for life. Judges and prosecutors are part of the same professional body and are collectively referred to as magistrats. As a result, they may transfer from one position to the other throughout their career.
Each year, the Ministry of Justice decides how many positions must be filled based upon the courts’ workload and budgetary considerations. It also organizes the competitive examinations. There are three entrance examinations, each for a different category of candidates. The first is open to candidates 31 years old or under at the time of the examination who have a four-year university degree or an equivalent diploma. This category attracts the largest number of candidates. The second is open to civil servants 48 years and 5 months or under who have served at least four years in civil service. The third is open to those 40 years or under with at least eight years experience in a law related field. All candidates must be French citizens. The study program and the examinations are the same. In 2009, for example, the number of positions to be filled by the three examinations respectively was 80, 19 and 6.
The competitive examination is considered quite difficult and has two parts. The written part of the examination includes the drafting of a general education paper on a social, legal, political, economic, philosophical and/or cultural issue in French society; a civil or civil procedure law paper; a civil or civil procedure practical case; a criminal or criminal procedure law paper; a criminal or criminal law practical case; and several questions aimed at evaluating the candidate’s knowledge of the State and the justice system, public liberties, and public law. The written examination is anonymous.
Candidates who pass the written examination then take a variety of oral examinations, including an interview with the examining board, with topics including European and private international law, social and commercial law, and a foreign language (English, German, Arabic, Spanish, Italian or Russian). The examination board is comprised by a judge of the Cour de Cassation (France’s Supreme Court for civil and criminal matters) who acts as the chair, and other members of the judiciary. Additionally, the candidates must draft an analytical brief based on legal documents provided to them.
Once they enter the ENM, the successful candidates, who are now referred to as auditeurs de justice, start a 31-month course of study in both theory and practice. They receive 80 percent of the salary of a judge or prosecutor at the beginning of their career. They attend general study courses at the school in many disciplines including law, history, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, forensic science, pathology and accounting. They also spend many months as interns in various institutions, including attorneys’ offices, police investigative services, prisons, and French and foreign courts.
All this training is followed by an examination used to rank them by order of merit. They will then choose their first posting from a list prepared by the Ministry of Justice. Whether they obtain this particular posting or another will depend on their rank in the final examination. Once they know their posting, they will spend several months preparing for it before joining the court they have been appointed to.
Most judges and prosecutors are recruited through this competitive process. Some people, however, may be eligible to enter the judiciary directly. They must be at least 35 years old and have had a professional career that makes them particularly suitable to become a judge or prosecutor. Their applications are reviewed by a Commission chaired by the First President of the Cour de Cassation.
Finally, in addition to the initial training of judges and prosecutors, the ENM provides them with continuing legal education. It also has an international department that originally was set up to provide training for judges and prosecutors from French-speaking African countries. Since the 1990s, the department’s missions have evolved and expanded. The ENM now works with non-French speaking countries that wish either to set up a similar institution, or to cooperate on other various programs. For example, it provides training for some Latin American judges and prosecutors, supports the development of the judicial system in Haiti, and works with other European Union Member States. It also cooperates with the Russian Judicial Academy, which, among others institutions, is a training center for Russian judges.