Under French Law, franchisors and distributors are subject to two kinds of pre-contractual information obligations: each party has to spontaneously inform his future partner of any information which he knows is decisive for his consent. In addition, for certain contracts – i.e franchise agreement – there is a duty to disclose a limited amount of information in a document. These pre-contractual obligations are mandatory. Thus these two obligations apply simultaneously to the franchisor, distributor or dealer when negotiating a contract with a partner.
General duty of disclosure for all contractors
What is the scope of this pre-contractual information?
This obligation is imposed on all co-contractors, to any kind of contract. Indeed, article 1112-1 of the Civil Code states that:
(§. 1) The party who knows information of decisive importance for the consent of the other party must inform the other party if the latter legitimately ignores this information or trusts its co-contractor.
(§. 3) Of decisive importance is the information that is directly and necessarily related to the content of the contract or the quality of the parties. »
This obligation applies to all contracting parties for any type of contract.
Who must prove the compliance with such provision ?
The burden of proof rests on the person who claims that the information was due to him. He must then prove (i) that the other party owed him the information but (ii) did not provide it (Article 1112-1 (§. 4) of the Civil Code)
Special duty of disclosure for franchise and distribution agreements
Which contracts are subject to this special rule?
French law requires (art. L.330-3 French Commercial Code) communication of a pre-contractual information document (in French “DIP”) and the draft contract, by any person:
- which grants another person the right to use a trade mark, trade name or sign,
- while requiring an exclusive or quasi-exclusive commitment for the exercise of its activity (e.g. exclusive purchase obligation).
Concretely, DIP must be provided, for example, to the franchisee, distributor, dealer or licensee of a brand, by its franchisor, supplier or licensor as soon as the two above conditions are met.
When the DIP must be provided?
DIP and draft contract must be provided at least 20 days before signing the contract, and, where applicable, before the payment of the sum required to be paid prior to the signature of the contract (for a reservation).
What information must be disclosed in the DIP?
Article R. 330-1 of the French Commercial Code requires that DIP mentions the following information (non-detailed list) concerning:
- Franchisor (identity and experience of the managers, career path, etc.);
- Franchisor’s business (in particular creation date, head office, bank accounts, historical of the development of the business, annual accounts, etc.);
- Operating network (members list with indication of signing date of contracts, establishments list offering the same products/services in the area of the planned activity, number of members having ceased to be part of the network during the year preceding the issue of the DIP with indication of the reasons for leaving, etc.);
- Trademark licensed (date of registration, ownership and use);
- General state of the market (about products or services covered by the contract)and local state of the market (about the planned area) and information relating to factors of competition and development perspective;
- Essential element of the draft contract and at least: its duration, contract renewal conditions, termination and assignment conditions and scope of exclusivities;
- Financial obligations weighing in on contracting party: nature and amount of the expenses and investments that will have to be incurred before starting operations (up-front entry fee, installation costs, etc.).
How to prove the disclosure of information?
The burden of proof for the delivery of the DIP rests on the debtor of this obligation: the franchisor (Cass. Com., 7 July 2004, n°02-15.950). The ideal for the franchisor is to have the franchisee sign and date his DIP on the day it is delivered and to keep the proof thereof.
The clause of contract indicating that the franchisee acknowledges having received a complete DIP does not provide proof of the delivery of a complete DIP (Cass. com, 10 January 2018, n° 15-25.287).
Sanction for breach of pre-contractual information duties
Failing to comply with the obligations relating to the DIP, franchisor or supplier can be sentenced to a criminal fine of up to 1,500 euros and up to 3,000 euros in the event of a repeat offence, the fine being multiplied by five for legal entities (article R.330-2 French commercial Code).
Cancellation of the contract for deceit
The contract may be declared null and void in case of breach of either article 1112-1 or article L. 330-3. In both cases, failure to comply with the obligation to provide information is sanctioned if the applicant demonstrates that his or her consent has been vitiated by error, deceit or violence. Where applicable, the parties must return to the state they were in before the contract.
Regarding deceit, Courts strictly assess its two conditions which are:
- (a material element) the existence of a lie or deceptive reticence (article 1137 French Civil Code);
- And (an intentional element) the intention to deceive his co-contractor (article 1130 French Civil Code).
Although the claims for contract cancellation are subject to very strict conditions, it remains that franchisees/distributors may alternatively obtain damages on the basis of tort liability for non-compliance with the pre-contractual information obligation, subject to proof of fault (incomplete or incorrect information), damage (loss of chance of not contracting or contracting on more advantageous terms) and the causal link between the two.
French case law
Franchisee/distributor must demonstrate that he would not have actually entered into the contract if he had had the missing or correct information
Courts reject motion for cancellation of a franchise contract when the franchisee cannot prove that this deceit would have misled its consent or that it would not have entered into the contract if it had had such information (for instance: Versailles Court of Appeal, December 3, 2020, no. 19/01184).
The significant experience of the franchisee/distributor greatly mitigates the possible existence of a defect in consent.
In a ruling of January 20, 2021 (no. 19/03382) the Paris Court of Appeal rejected an application for cancellation of a franchise contract where the franchisor had submitted a DIP manifestly and deliberately deficient and an overly optimistic turnover forecast.
Thus, while the presentation of the national market was not updated and too vague and that of the local market was just missing, the Court rejected the legal qualification of the franchisee’s error or the franchisor’s willful misrepresentation, because the franchisee “had significant experience” for several years in the same sector (See another example for a Master franchisee)
Similarly, the Court reminds that “An error concerning the profitability of the concept of a franchise cannot lead to the nullity of the contract for lack of consent of the franchisee if it does not result from data established and communicated by the franchisor“, it does not accept the error resulting from the communication by the franchisor of a very optimistic turnover forecast tripling in three years. Indeed, according to the Court, “the franchisee’s knowledge of the local market was likely to enable it to put the franchisor’s exaggerations into perspective, at least in part. The franchisee was well aware that the forecast document provided by the franchisor had no contractual value and did not commit the franchisor to the announced results. It was in fact the franchisee’s responsibility to conduct its own market research, so that if the franchisee misunderstood the profitability of the operation at the business level, this error was not caused by information prepared and communicated by the franchisor“.
The path is therefore narrow for the franchisee: he cannot invoke error concerning profitability when it is him who draws up his plan, and even when this plan is drawn up by the franchisor or based on information drawn up and transmitted by the franchisor, the experience of the franchisee who knew the local market may exonerate the franchisor.
- The information required by the DIP must be fully completed and updated ;
- The information not required by the DIP but communicated by the franchisor must be carefully selected and sincere;
- Franchisee must be given the opportunity to request additional information from the franchisor;
- Franchisee’s experience in the economic sector enables the franchisor to considerably limit its exposure to the risk of contract cancellation due to a defect in the franchisee’s consent;
- Franchisor must keep the proof of the actual disclosure of pre-contractual information (whether mandatory or not).