In an important and very reasoned judgment delivered by the Court of Cassation of France on September 30, 2020, relating to the enforceability of arbitration clauses in international consumer contracts, the Supreme Court judged that these clauses must be considered unfair and cannot be opposed to consumers.
The Supreme Court traditionally insisted on the priority given to the arbitrator to decide on his own jurisdiction, laid down in Article 1448 of the Code of Civil Procedure (principle known as “competence-competence”, Jaguar, Civ. 1re, May 21, 1997, nos. 95-11.429 and 95-11.427).
The ECJ expressed its hostility towards such clauses when they are opposed to consumers. In Mostaza Claro (C-168/05), it referred to the internal laws of member states, while considering that the procedural modalities offered by states should not “make it impossible in practice or excessively difficult to exercise the rights conferred by public order to consumers (“Directive 93/13, concerning unfair terms in consumer contracts, must be interpreted as meaning that a national court seized of an action for annulment of an arbitration award must determine whether the arbitration agreement is void and annul that award where that agreement contains an unfair term, even though the consumer has not pleaded that invalidity in the course of the arbitration proceedings, but only in that of the action for annulment”).
It therefore referred to the national judge the right to implement its legislation on unfair terms, and therefore to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether the arbitration clause should be considered unfair. This is what the Court of Cassation decided, ruling out the case-by-case method, and considering that in any event such a clause must be excluded in relations with consumers.
The Court of Cassation adopted the same solution in international employment contracts, where it traditionally considers that arbitration clauses contained in international employment contracts are enforceable against employee (Soc. 16 Feb. 1999, n ° 96-40.643).
The Supreme Court, although traditionally very favourable to arbitration, gradually builds up a set of specific exceptions to ensure the protection of the “weak” party.