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8 June 2018

While the UK government squabbles, the French cabinet is ready for Brexit

French ministers are doing the rounds in London to pitch France’s new “attractiveness” to commercial sectors.

By Pauline Bock

The British government may be struggling to agree on the best Brexit to deliver by 2019, but in France preparations are well underway to make the best out of the UK’s exit from the EU. The latest French “charm offensive”? Creating an English-speaking international chamber in Paris, to lure international companies to settle in France.

Nicole Belloubet, France’s justice minister, made the trip across the Channel on 7 June 2018 to host a day-long conference in London on the “Attractiveness of justice, attractiveness of the law: the new French model” (that’s “international justice can prosper in France after Brexit”, to you and me). Her message to British lawyers and justice experts was clear: France is getting ready to steal London’s crown as the European hub for commercial justice.

“A country’s strength is to offer a package of advantages: powerful financial and juridicial places,” she said at the residence of the French ambassador in London. “Things will no longer be the same after Brexit.”

On the day of her visit, the British government was paralysed by internal drama – this time over Brexit Secretary David Davis’ potential resignation. Prudently, Belloubet refrained from commenting on the Brexit negotiations, only mentioning that she was following the “slow” process from afar.

After Brexit, Belloubet said, “things cannot carry on as they currently are”, adding: “We hope to keep a close relationship with our British friends, but procedures will have to change.” She gave the example of European arrest warrants and extradition processes, which France and the UK must “find new ways to accommodate”, as cooperation must continue once the UK leaves the bloc.

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As part of an ambitious reform of the French judicial system, Paris’s new international chamber will compete with London to sign international companies’ contracts and settle commercial disputes. Although written submissions will still be made in French, testimonies and litigations will be fully conducted in English. Unlike the ones made in London when the UK leaves the EU, the French chamber’s court decisions will be legally binding in the whole of the EU. French law firms’ fees are usually a fraction of the fees practiced in the City, as Fabienne Schaller, judge at the Paris Appeal Court’s international commercial court, pointed out during the conference.

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The Paris chamber may experiment with other languages in the future, Belloubet said. In Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, English-language courts are being set up, in a similar bid to attract companies fleeing the British system.

Belloubet is the latest in a series of members of the French government to come to London to announce the implementation of post-Brexit measures. The last such visit was by the budget and finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, in February, who hopes “thousands” of banking jobs will move from London to Paris in the years to come. Belloubet said that French ministers recently briefed the French prime minister, Edouard Philippe, on their plans post-Brexit: “Each ministry brought up the cases that should be subjected to different approach because of Brexit,” she said.

PM Philippe himself told French newspaper Libération last year: “France now has the considerable opportunity to attract companies and investors who are currently in the UK.” When the British government finally agrees on what Brexit deal it wants to go for, it will look around to face negotiating partners with their own private interests – and their shiny new tools ready to “attract” whomever the British deal doesn’t convince.