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Criminal liability : general information

3Exposure to criminal liability3

Traditionally, to incur criminal liability, an infringement (minor offence, misdemeanour or crime) needs to be committed, which requires the combination of three elements :

  • a legal element : legislation or regulation defining the reprehensible act and subsequent sanction,
  • a material element : act or omission penalised,
  • a moral or intentional element : the conscious desire to carry out the material element of the infringement.

A misdemeanour can however be constituted by a simple fault due to carelessness or negligence, with no intention of committing the infringement (article 121-3 of the new Criminal Code).

In terms of classified installations, the Court of cassation ruled that “the establishment of the breach of a legal requirement in full knowledge of the facts [...] is sufficient to imply [...] culpable intent”.

The criminal action is initiated by the victim of the infringement, if the victim files a civil claim, or by the Public Prosecutor, following the filing of a complaint or a penalty issued by competent agents.

3Infringements and sanctions3

In terms of classified installations, there is no “crime”. Infringements are either minor offences or misdemeanours.

Minor offences are divided into five categories according to their seriousness, the 5th category representing the most serious offences. The penalty is a fine whose amount varies according to the minor offence category (with a maximum €1,500 for the 5th category, increasing to €3,000 in case of repeated offence).

When the infringement is a misdemeanour, the penalties are a fine and imprisonment. Maximum imprisonment is ten years. In terms of classified installations, depending on the seriousness of the misdemeanour, statutory imprisonment ranges from 6 months to 2 years. The amount of the fines ranges from several thousand to several hundreds of thousands Euros.


Corporations (public or private) can be convicted in case of infringements committed on their behalf by their affiliates or representatives. The maximum amount of the fine is equal to five times the maximum fine imposed upon individuals for the same infringement. Furthermore, the judge can enforce various measures against corporations governed by private law, in particular :

  • dissolution, when the corporation has been created or modified from its original purpose to commit the offences,
  • disqualification from the direct or indirect practice of the activity during which the infringement was committed. This disqualification can be temporary (for a maximum period of five years) or permanent,
  • the posting or publication of the decision of the court by any means of audiovisual communication.