This post was contributed by Thomas Mastrullo, who is a lecturer at the Sorbonne Law School (Paris 1)
On 31 March 2021, the Legal High Committee for Financial Markets of Paris (“Haut Comité juridique de la Place Financière de Paris” – HCJP) has published a report on the applicable law to companies (Rapport sur le rattachement des sociétés – see here). This report is of great interest for those who are interested in the evolution of international company law.
For several years, there has been a reflection in France about the conflict-of-law rule in corporate matters.
We know that two theories coexist in international company law: the theory of incorporation, which consists in applying to the company the law of the State where it was incorporated and where its registered office, or statutory seat, is located; the real-seat theory, which submits the company to the law of the State where its head office, or central administration, is localised.
In French law, the conflict-of-law rule in corporate matters is laid down in unilateralist terms, with almost the same drafting, in Article 1837 of the Civil Code (see here) and in Article L. 210-3 of the Commercial Code (see here).
The doctrine is divided on the interpretation of these texts, which have been bilateralized by French Cour de cassation (e.g. Com. 9 mars 1993, n° 91-11.003, Bull. civ. IV, n° 94 ; see here). The traditional view among French writers is that the connecting factor is in principle the real seat, because the statutory seat is not enforceable against third parties in case of dissociation of the registered office and the head office. But the modern view is that the connecting factor is in principle the statutory seat, considering that third parties have an option between the registered office and the head office in case of dissociation.
In this context, by letter dated 18 February 2020, the HCJP was jointly seized by the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Economy with a request for a study on the “Opportunity, feasibility and conditions of turning to the theory of incorporation”. This initiative takes place in an environment of increased economic and legal competition: the adoption of the theory of incorporation might strengthen the legal attractiveness and economic influence of France. But the referral letter does not ignore that such a liberal conflict-of-law rule might also encourage opportunistic behaviors by economic actors and departure of French companies abroad.
Several questions were therefore raised in the referral letter: Consequences of adopting the theory of incorporation in terms of attractiveness? Experience of other EU Member States? Compatibility with EU law? Risks of forum and law shopping? Consequences for matters related to company law?
Finally, the letter requested that “the necessary legislative and regulatory changes” be proposed.To meet this demand, a working group was set up under the chairmanship of Professor Hervé Synvet, composed of academics and legal practitioners.
The result of the working group’s reflection is the report under consideration, which is divided into two parts.
Impact of a New Conflict-of-law Rule in Corporate Matters on Other Matters
In the first part, the HCJP studies the impact that the evolution of the French connecting factor in corporate matters would have on other branches of law. Several matters are taken into consideration: tax law, insolvency law, social law, capital market law, regulation of foreign investments, banking and financial law. The conclusion is that the adoption of the theory of incorporation would have little impact on these different branches of the law, and in any case no negative effects likely to prevent a reform. Indeed, these different disciplines have their own conflict-of-law rules and the connecting categories are quite clearly defined in French private international law. In addition, each of these matters has a specific approach to the company seat.
In the second part, the working group argues in favor of an evolution of the French conflict-of-law rule. More precisely, it proposes to adopt a new connecting factor relying exclusively on the statutory seat – or registered office, and to abandon any reference to the real seat.
Arguments in favor of the adoption of the connecting criterion by the statutory seat
Several arguments are advanced in support of this proposition.
Firstly, this conflict-of-law rule would be simpler and, as a consequence, more favorable to legal certainty. Indeed, on the one hand, it would eliminate the touchy question of the place of the real seat and, on the other hand, it would guarantee respect for the operators’ choice of the law to rule their company or even their group of companies. Thus, France’s attractiveness might be reinforced. Secondly, the solution is inspired by the comparative private international law (German, Irish, Luxembourg, Dutch, British, Swiss and Delaware law are studied) which reveals a strong tendency towards the generalization of the theory of incorporation or connecting criterion by the registered office. Thirdly, the solution is presented as more suited to the development of EU law which, through the jurisprudence of the CJEU – and in particular the Centros, Uberseering, Inspire Art and Polbud judgments – and some regulations – such as European Regulation n° 2157/2001 on SE (see here), tends to favor the registered office as a connecting factor.
Although it is not unaware of the risk of law shopping, the HCJP considers that this risk should not be overestimated since the laws of the EU’s Member States have “a common base” because of the European directives adopted on corporate matters, which is likely to prevent a “race to the bottom”. Moreover, the transfer of registered office from one Member State to another is still difficult, which is an obstacle to law shopping.
Proposed new texts
The HCJP recommends amending the Civil Code, and in particular Article 1837, and repealing Article L. 210-3 of the Commercial Code.
The new bilateral conflict-of-law rule, applicable to all companies with legal personality, is set out in Article 1837, paragraph 1, of the Civil Code. It provides that the company would be governed by the law of the State in which it has its statutory seat – or registered office. Rather than a reference to the company’s incorporation, this formulation is chosen because it would ensure terminological continuity with the current Article 1837 and would model the French conflict-of-law rule on that of the European Regulation on the SE.
Besides, the HCJP devotes paragraph 2 of Article 1837 to companies without statutory seat. For these companies, the conflict-of-law rule would be inspired from the solutions provided by the Rome 1 Regulation: the applicable law would be the law chosen by the partners or, in the absence of choice, the law of the country with which the company is most closely connected.
The proposed Article 1837 reads:
Article 1837 du Code civil
La société est régie par la loi de l’État dans lequel elle a son siège statutaire.
À défaut de siège statutaire, la société est régie par la loi choisie par ses associés ou, à défaut de choix, par la loi de l’État avec lequel elle présente les liens les plus étroits.
The HCJP proposes also to introduce a new article 1837-1 of Civil Code devoted to the lex societatis’ scope of application, inspired from Swiss law. The aim is to increase the readability and, as a result, the attractiveness of French law. A list of questions falling within the scope of lex societatis would be drawn, this list being non-exhaustive as suggested by the use of the French adverb “notamment” (which can be translated by “in particular”).
The proposed Article 1837-1 reads:
Article 1837-1 du Code civil
La loi applicable à la société en vertu de l’article précédent régit notamment : a) la nature juridique de la société ; b) la capacité juridique de la société ; c) la dénomination ou la raison sociale ; d) la constitution de la société ; e) la nullité de la société, ainsi que celle des délibérations sociales ; f) la dissolution et la liquidation de la société ; g) les opérations emportant transmission universelle de patrimoine et le transfert du siège statutaire ; h) l’interprétation et la force obligatoire des statuts ; i) la modification des statuts, en particulier la transformation de la société ; j) l’organisation et le fonctionnement de la société, ainsi que sa représentation ; k) les droits et obligations des associés ; l) la preuve, l’acquisition et la perte de la qualité d’associé ; m) la détermination des titres susceptibles d’être émis par la société ; n) la détermination des personnes responsables des dettes sociales et l’étendue de leur responsabilité ; o) la responsabilité civile encourue en cas de violation des règles gouvernant la constitution, le fonctionnement ou la liquidation des sociétés, ou d’obligations statutaires.
In addition, the HCJP considers the introduction of an Article 1837-2 which includes a substantive rule aiming at protecting “French” contracting parties of foreign companies. More precisely, the legal or statutory restrictions on the capacity or the powers of the representatives of a company under foreign law, which would produce effect in external relations according to the foreign law, would be unenforceable against “French” co-contractors, as long as they are of good faith. This rule aims mainly to protect the co-contractors of companies incorporated outside EU – such as American companies which apply the ultra vires doctrine ; the risk is indeed lower in EU, thanks to the protective regime of directive 2017/1132/UE (see here).
The proposed Article 1837-2 reads:
Article 1837-2 du Code civil
Les restrictions légales ou statutaires à la capacité juridique ou aux pouvoirs des représentants d’une société de droit étranger concluant un acte juridique en France qui, selon la loi régissant la société, produiraient effet dans ses relations externes, sont inopposables au cocontractant ayant légitimement ignoré ces restrictions.
In conclusion, the HCJP’s “Report on the connecting factor of companies” appears to be a stimulating contribution for the modernisation of French international company law.