Written by: Carol Umhoefer; Farid Bouguettaya; and Maruschka Graham

In 1994, France implemented a law, known as the “Toubon Law” after France’s then-minister of Culture, Jacques Toubon, to preserve the French language, protect French consumers and promote French culture. At the time, the world wide web and the cyber economy were nascent; online marketplaces were virtually non-existent.

Luckily for French legislators, the “Toubon Law” was drafted in sufficiently broad terms to avoid raising legal issues regarding its applicability to the cyber economy. For example, its scope is broad enough to cover most if not all information exchanged in commercial dealings with consumers, whether in a brick-and-mortar store, on a website or via a smartphone app.

As is often the case with internet regulation, the tougher issues with the “Toubon Law” lie in the fact that the cyber economy is cross-border. It would be impossible to require all websites available to French consumers and users to translate content into French, and French courts do limit the law’s application to service providers based in France, or to situations where targeted consumers are located in France.

In either scenario, the sole objective is to protect French consumers, which neatly avoids the tougher issues about how far the “Toubon Law” can go to preserve the French language and promote French culture. Indeed, in a 1993 Communication to the Council and the European Parliament, the European Commission stated that Member States should remain competent with regards to language laws to protect consumers, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity. Since that time, although the “Toubon Law” could be considered to violate the principle of free movement of goods and services within the European Union, the European Union Court of Justice has not addressed the issue of mandatory use of French on websites. Additionally, the French Supreme Court has confirmed that the “Toubon Law” is compliant with EU law, provided that it aims at protecting consumers.

As if to underscore this legal position, the French consumer protection authorities have tended to focus enforcement of the “Toubon Law” on products with a direct impact on consumers’ health and safety (e.g., toys and cosmetics), or that require special instructions to ensure that consumers use them in accordance with their intended purpose (e.g., sunglasses and gardening equipment).

Nonetheless, relatively few breaches of the “Toubon Law” in the virtual market have been reported. Likely this is due to a combination of factors, including widespread acceptance of the law by both consumers and professionals, increased availability of free, on-line translation services, and cyber vendors’ business strategy. French consumers generally search for online information by using French key words. As a result, professionals are inclined to use French language in their websites if they want to appeal to potential customers in France.

Finally, there is the dissuasive aspect of the law itself. Failure to comply with the “Toubon Law” can constitute a criminal offense, with fines amounting to €3,750 per violation. In addition, pursuant to the “Hamon Law” adopted in March 2014, the consumer protection authorities may now impose administrative fines of up to €15,000 on corporate entities.