This post was contributed by Fabienne Jault-Seseke, who is Professor at University Paris Saclay (UVSQ), and a member of GEDIP.
On 26 May 2021, the French supreme court for private and criminal matters (Cour de Cassation) issued an important judgment requiring the ex officio application of a European conflict of laws rule. The Court specifically relies on the principles of primacy and effectiveness of EU law to justify the solution, which is different from its traditional doctrine on the application of conflict of laws rules.
The case involves Mienta France and Groupe SEB-Moulinex, a French group, in relation to their activities on the Egyptian market. Groupe SEB-Moulinex granted Intercommerce the exclusive representation and distribution of Moulinex brand products. It also granted Blendex an exclusive licence to use the international Moulinex brands and a licence to manufacture certain products, while lending it moulds and supplying certain components. After these relationships were terminated, Groupe SEB-Moulinex sued Intercommerce and Blendex for liability for brutal termination of an established commercial relationship. The group brought also an action for forced intervention against Mienta France. It is alleged that Mienta manufactures, directly or through Blendex, small household appliances which it markets under the Mienta brand on the Egyptian market, in particular through the company Intercommerce. These products are likely to create harmful confusion in the public mind with the Seb group’s own products. It is alleged that these facts constitute unfair competition and parasitism.
Ex Officio Application of EU Choice of Law Rules
The question of the law applicable to the dispute does not appear to have been discussed before the Court of Appeal. The Cour of Cassation therefore decided to set aside the judgment of the lower court for failing to apply ex officio Article 6 of the Rome II Regulation to the issue of unfair competition. It should be noted that the court does not decide here the question of the law applicable to the action for brutal termination of established commercial relations. Article 6 designates the applicable law to unfair competition (law of the country where competitive relations or the collective interests of consumers are affected, or if the act of unfair competition affects exclusively the interests of a specific competitor, the law of the country in which the damage occurs or the law of the country where the person claimed to be liable and the person sustaining damage both have their habitual residence) and specifies also that the law applicable may not be derogated from by an agreement.
The Court refers to two sets of norms to require ex officio application of Article 6. The first is Article 12 of the French Code of Civil Procedure, which states that “the judge shall decide the dispute in accordance with the rules of law applicable to it”. The second are “the principles of primacy and effectiveness of European Union law”. To our knowledge, this combination is used for the first time to justify the authority of a conflict of laws rule. The Cour de Cassation has used it once to ensure the application of the product liability regime established by the 1985 Directive.
More specifically, the Court rules that courts must apply a conflict of laws rule ex officio when it is forbidden to derogate from it. Implicitly, the Court deduces that Article 6 of the Rome II Regulation must be applied because the parties do not have the power to agree on the applicable law. For the first time, it is thus indicated that courts must apply ex officio conflict of laws rule which excludes party autonomy in choice of law.
Placed under the patronage of the principles of primacy and effectiveness of European Union law, the solution is limited to conflict rules of European origin. Nevertheless, one might consider extending it to the whole of French Private international law. First of all, the regime of conflict rules has not been harmonized at European level. Consequently, there is no need to distinguish the European rules from other conflict-of-laws rules. As regards the Rome II Regulation specifically, the foreign law regime ressembles the Arlesian woman, about which one speaks, but that one never sees (see Article 30, 1. I and the lack of any study). Secondly, the proposed solution would be more readable than the one that results today from the criterion of the free availability of rights (libre disponibilité des droits) that the Cour de Cassation usually uses.
The application of Article 6 in the dispute brought by the Seb group is likely to lead to the application of Egyptian law, which will upset those who point out that in matters of unfair competition the law of origin of competitors should prevail over the law of the market (see V. Pironon, Rev. crit DIP 2020. 814). It may be possible to avoid this by establishing that Mienta France has its habitual residence in France and that only the interests of the Seb group are affected. In this case, the judgment of 26 May 2021 will simply have made it possible to refine the regime of the conflict of laws rule. This is already a lot.