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Companies under the French Draft Code of PIL

This post was contributed by Thomas Mastrullo, who is an Associate Professor of Commercial Law at the University  of Luxembourg. It is the fifth in a series of posts on the French draft code of private international law of March 2022 (the previous posts in the series gave a German perspective and discussed the issues of renvoiforeign law and the recognition of marriages celebrated abroad). 


Background

Title II of Book II of the French Draft Code of Private International Law is devoted to legal persons.

This Title II is divided into two chapters which deal with two major questions of international company law: the first chapter pertains to the recognition of companies (Art. 85), while the second chapter concerns the conflict-of-law rule in corporate matters, through the determination (Art. 86) and the scope (Art. 87) of lex societatis.

By the rules it proposes, the French Draft PIL Code undoubtedly promotes the modernization of French international company law.

Recognition of Companies (Article 85)

Article 85 of the French Draft PIL Code lays down the principle of recognition in France of the legal personality of companies formed in accordance with the law of a foreign State.

The proposed article 85 reads :

L’existence et les effets de la personnalité morale ou de la capacité juridique des sociétés dont le siège statutaire est situé hors du territoire français et qui ont été régulièrement immatriculées sur un registre public d’un État étranger sont reconnus de plein droit sous réserve de la fraude aux droits des tiers.

The Draft PIL Code thus adopts the liberal theory of incorporation with regard to the recognition of foreign companies: as soon as a company is validly incorporated in a foreign State, where by hypothesis it has fixed its statutory seat or registered office, it must be recognised in French territory.

Such a rule “codifies” the traditional position of French law on this subject. Indeed, since the 19th century, it has been accepted in French law that “la régularité de la constitution selon la loi de l’État d’immatriculation est suffisante pour que la société soit reconnue en France” (M. Menjucq, Droit international et européen des sociétés, LGDJ, “Précis Domat”, 6th ed., no. 58), as long as it is established that the company enjoys legal personality in its State of incorporation (See CA Paris, 30 Apr. 1997, BJS 1997, p. 778, note M. Menjucq). Moreover, the solution adopted by the Draft is in line with the jurisprudence of the CJEU, and in particular with Überseering judgment (see here) according to which:

the refusal by a host Member State to recognize the legal capacity of a company formed in accordance with the law of another Member State in which it has its registered office (…) constitutes a restriction on freedom of establishment” and, even worst, an “outright negation of the freedom of establishment.

Beyond these general remarks, three points on the text may be underlined.

Firstly, recognition relates to the “existence and effects” of legal personality. This expression refers to the French doctrinal position which defines recognition as “l’admission sur le territoire nationale de l’existence et des effets d’une personne juridique (physique ou morale) étrangère” (L. Lévy, La nationalité des sociétés, LGDJ, 1984, p. 51). This definition gives precedence to the fiction theory of legal personality, considering that, whatever personality a company enjoys abroad, it is not imposed on the State of recognition, which remains free to decide on its existence. We know that other authors, inspired by the reality theory, define recognition more strictly as “l’autorisation accordée par l’État à la société d’exercer une activité sur son sol” (P. Mayer et V. Heuzé, Droit international privé, LGDJ, « Précis Domat », 11th ed., no. 1106 et s.). The approach adopted by the Draft has the merit of grasping the whole issue of recognition in corporate matters: the recognition of the existence of a foreign company as a legal person logically implies the recognition of the effects resulting from this personality… And it is difficult to imagine that a foreign company whose existence is recognised in a State could be outright refused authorization to carry on its business there.

Secondly, the Draft PIL Code pertains to the recognition of the companies’ “legal personality” but also of the companies’ “legal capacity”. A simple legal capacity granted in the foreign State of incorporation is therefore sufficient to recognize a company’s legal personality in France. Indeed, the condition that the company must have legal personality in its State of incorporation in order to be recognized in France is interpreted broadly. Even if it does not have legal personality in its State of incorporation, a company which enjoys a capacity equivalent to that conferred on companies which have legal personality in France may be recognized as a legal person on French territory, as was decided in the case of a German Offene Handelsgesellschaft (see CA Versailles, 14 janv. 1999, BJS 1999, § 97, p. 466, note M. Menjucq).

Thirdly, the Draft PIL Code provides that recognition can be rejected in case of fraud against the right of third parties. This could be the hypothesis of a letter-box company without any effective connection to the State in which it has its statutory seat or registered office. This international company law’s classic limitation is to be welcomed, especially as it is compatible with EU law. Indeed, it follows in particular from the Inspire Art (see here) and Polbud (see here) CJEU’s judgements that fraud against the rights of third parties may constitute a limit on the companies’ freedom of establishment, provided that such fraud is assessed on a case-by-case basis and in a punitive manner (see Th. Mastrullo in Traité de droit du commerce international, M. Menjucq et J. Béguin (dir.), LexisNexis, 3rd ed., no 711). Obviously, the characterisation of fraud will always be based on an assessment of the facts of the case.

Determination of the lex societatis (Article 86)

The French Draft Code of Private International Law adopts the theory of incorporation and the criterion of the statutory seat or registered office as a connecting factor for determining the lex societatis.

The proposed Article 86 reads :

Les sociétés immatriculées au registre du commerce et des sociétés au titre de leur siège statutaire sont soumises aux dispositions de la loi française.

Les sociétés dont le siège statutaire est situé hors du territoire français sont soumises aux dispositions du droit des sociétés de l’État dans lequel elles sont immatriculées dans un registre public ou, à défaut d’immatriculation, de l’État où est situé le siège statutaire.

The first paragraph uses the unilateralist method, and states the French law’s will to be applicable to companies whose statutory seat or registered office is in France, while the second paragraph contains a bilateral conflict-of-laws rule according to which, when its statutory seat is not in France, the company is ruled by the law of the State where it is incorporated or has its statutory seat.

As the Legal High Committee for Financial Markets of Paris (“Haut Comité juridique de la Place Financière de Paris” – HCJP) which has published a report on the applicable law to companies  (Rapport sur le rattachement des sociétés – see here) on 31 March 2021, the French Draft PIL Code adopts a liberal approach of companies’ connecting factor.

Several arguments may be advanced in support of this proposition.

Firstly, the connecting factor relying the statutory seat or registered office is simpler and, as a consequence, more favorable to legal certainty. Indeed, on the one hand, it eliminates the touchy question of the place of the real seat and, on the other hand, it guarantees respect for the operators’ choice of the law to rule their company. Thus, this connecting factor might reinforce France’s attractiveness. Secondly, the solution is inspired by the comparative private international law which reveals a strong tendency towards the generalization of the incorporation theory or connecting criterion by the statutory seat or registered office. In Belgium, for instance, the connecting criterion by the real seat, which had prevailed since 1873, has been abandoned by the law of 23 March 2019 in favour of the connecting criterion by the statutory seat, the new Article 110 of the Belgian Code of Private International Law now providing that « La personne morale est régie par le droit de l’État où se situe son siège statutaire ». Thirdly, the solution is more suited to the development of EU law which, through the jurisprudence of the CJEU – and in particular the Centros (see here), Überseering (see here), Inspire Art (see here), and Polbud (see here) judgments – and some regulations – such as European Regulation n° 2157/2001 on SE (see here) or Directive (UE) 2019/2121 amending Directive (EU) 2017/1132 as regards cross-border conversions, mergers and divisions (see here), tends to promote the statutory seat or registered office as a connecting factor.

It is regrettable that the proposed Article 86 does not provide for the limit of fraud against the rights of third parties, as it is expressly provided for in relation to recognition. One can think, however, that the limit of fraud could be implemented in order to apply the law of the real seat instead of the law of the statutory seat, either on the basis of Article 85, which rejects the recognition of legal personality’s “effects” in case of fraud against the right of third parties (lex societatis may be considered as one of these “effects”), or on the basis of common private international law, knowing that such a limit is envisaged by European case law (see already above).

Scope of the lex societatis (Article 87)

Article 87 of the French Draft Code of Private International Law is dedicated to the scope of application of the lex societatis. The inspiration of this text can be found in Swiss law. The aim is to increase the readability and, as a result, the attractiveness of French law. A list of elements falling within the scope of lex societatis is drawn, this list being non-exhaustive as suggested by the use of the French adverb “notamment” (which can be translated by “in particular”).The list of elements falling within the scope of the lex societatis is not surprising and, mostly, “codifies” the French doctrinal positions and case law’s solutions.For example, the assertion that the lex societatis determines the acquisition and loss of the status of shareholder takes up the solution of the famous Royal Dutch judgment of 17 October 1972 (see here), in the same way that the Africatours judgment of 1st July 1997 admitted the application of the lex societatis with regard to the liability of managers towards third parties (see here).

In conclusion, the project seems relevant to meet the challenges created by the development of freedom of establishment in the European Union and to strengthen the competitiveness of French company law.

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