If you want to develop your distribution network abroad, a network of commercial agents is the easiest way, and France is no exception. Before entering into an agency contract ruled by French law, it is nevertheless advisable to know its main features, which will be discussed in this post.
A commercial agent is a professional representative who negotiates and eventually concludes contracts in the name of and on behalf of his principal.
The French Commercial Code (Article L134-1) defines a commercial agent precisely as:
«L’agent commercial est défini comme un mandataire qui, à titre de profession indépendante, sans être lié par un contrat de louage de services, est chargé, de façon permanente, de négocier et, éventuellement, de conclure des contrats de vente, d’achat, de location ou de prestation de services, au nom et pour le compte de producteurs, d’industriels de commerçants ou d’autres agents commerciaux.»
«The commercial agent is an agent who, as an independent professional, without being bound by an employment contract, is in a permanent position to negotiate and eventually to enter into contracts for the sale, purchase, rent/hire or performance of service in the name and on behalf of manufacturers, industrialists, traders or other commercial agents.»
The definition shows that the agent is independent: he/she is free to organise his/her own employment activity and business (sole agency, limited company etc.). This notion is fundamental, because the more the agent will be present and active in the organisation of the principal activity, the more the contract will be at risk of being requalified as a VRP (employee contract of sales representative) contract by the courts.
In the spirit of the contractual relationship and in the drafting of the contract itself, one must be very careful not to confuse an agent with a VRP since, according to French law, the latter is considered an employee, with greater rights and compensation for termination of contract.
The agent must be registered in the register of commercial agents at the Registry of the Commercial Court at his place of domicile.
The written form is not mandatory but strongly recommended. Article L134-2 of the Commercial Code provides that each party may request both the contract and addenda to be in writing.
Execution of the contract – important clauses
- Duration: for a fixed period or indefinite.
- Fee: a commission freely defined between the parties.
- Territory: it is very important to define the territory with precision and avoid wide generic clauses such as “world”.
- Exclusive: the clause must specify whether the exclusivity is in relation to the territory and/or on the clientele in a precise manner and if the principal reserves the right to intervene.
- Notice of withdrawal (Article L134-11, paragraph 3 of the Commercial Code): 1 month for the first year, 2 months for the second year, 3 months thereafter.
Post-contract – important clauses
Post-contractual non-competition clauses (Article L134-14 of the Commercial Code) must be in written form and limited to a maximum of 2 years post-contract.
The non-competition clauses restriction (territory, customers, products) must not be so restrictive as to prohibit the agent from working after the end of the contract. Therefore customers and products included in the agreement must be competitors of the type of goods subject of the agency contract. Otherwise, the courts will consider the clause as null and non-existent, entitling the agent to claim compensation.
French law does not provide any compensation for compliance with this clause.
After termination of the contract, the agent is entitled to an indemnity for termination as compensation (Article L134-12 of the Commercial Code). It is a rule of public order, therefore, the clause that provides for an exemption of this entitlement will be considered null and non-existent.
The agent has one year to assert this right to severance indemnity.
There is no requirement of keeping it in writing, however, it is advisable to write a notice of receipt as proof of the termination.
The amount of the compensation is equal to two years of commissions (gross) received by the agent. This is to be seen as a maximum measure and it is up to the principal to prove the reason as to why the agent should be entitled to a lower compensation.
In the event of litigation, the courts will at their discretion evaluate the amount of the request of a maximum of two years.
Cases in which compensation is not due:
- Assignment of the contract to another agent;
- Termination of the contract by the agent;
- Serious non-fulfilment of the contract by the agent.
Serious breach of contract can result from the non-fulfilment of clauses that are defined in the contract as important or must be assessed from time to time with the advice of your lawyer.
Focus: the termination of contract due to retirement
The agent is entitled to the indemnity for termination as compensation also when he/she ceases the activity and retires.
French jurisprudence (in particular the jurisprudence of the Court of Cassation), however, requires a more specific check of the reason for the termination of the contract: the agent must not only claim to be entitled to the retirement pension, he should also assert he is not in physical conditions to be able to work anymore.
Which is the competent French court?
Even if the agent is a trading company, the nature of the contract is still civil. By virtue of this, the competent court varies according to the person who brings the claim.
If the agent is the claimant, he can choose between “tribunal de grande instance” and “tribunal de commerce”.
If, on the other hand, the principal is the claimant, he must also begin the claim before the “tribunal de grande instance”.