Comparative Studies in the City of Love

Briana Echols '20
Guest Columnist

Briana Echols in front of the Eiffel Tower. Photo courtesy of Briana Echols.

Briana Echols in front of the Eiffel Tower. Photo courtesy of Briana Echols.

The wonderful Audrey Hepburn once said, “Paris is always a good idea.” As a 1L with no real insight, admittedly this was the biggest piece of advice I relied on when signing up for the French Public and Private Law course— otherwise known as “the Paris J-Term.” Granted, I had heard a few times previously that many legal systems in Europe varied greatly from the U.S.: an inquisitorial versus adversarial system. What that meant exactly or rather what an inquisitorial system “looked like,” was a bit beyond me. Therefore, I figured it would be a good chance to do a little traveling and find out first hand.

The first night in Paris, I was joined by ten students from my UVa cohort and our professor, Madame Goré, for dinner. While I didn’t brave up and finally try escargot (something I’ve been trying to convince myself to do for a while), I can confirm French onion soup is even better in France—go figure! What I enjoyed more than the food, however, was getting to know my fellow classmates and instructor in a more intimate and authentic setting. The restaurant, La Petite Chaise, was founded in 1680, making it the oldest restaurant in Paris. Madame Goré also informed us we were the smallest class in her ten years of teaching the course – most years consisted of about twenty or so students. 

For the next eight days, my classmates and I attended our “small section” lectures, went on field trips, and had more than ample time to independently explore the city. For five of the nine days, Madame Goré gave traditional two-hour lectures. The curriculum could best be described as an introduction to comparative studies, where the similarities and differences between the French and U.S. legal systems were examined. The course offered insight into some unique features of French law and government that had evolved from cultural and historical facets of the French state over time. We also briefly discussed the development of the EU from France’s perspective and predictions of how the EU’s relationship with its various countries is expected to progress. 

Occasionally after our lectures, the class would go on field trips. We were given private tours at the Conseil d’Etat (state council) and Conseil Constitutionnel (constitutional council). These entities could very loosely be likened to our Supreme Court and Congress. Simply put, the Conseil d’Etat presides over public matters (which does not include the criminal system), giving advice on policies to the government and parliament while also settling disputes involving public agencies. The Conseil Constitutionnel, on the other hand, supervises elections and determines if passed laws and bills fall in line with the French constitution. 

On days when there were no field trips, we were left to our own devices and able to explore the city. This was the first time I had traveled to Paris, so of course I did all of the very obnoxious and “touristy” things, e.g. the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles. I also explored several restaurants with my classmates, which made for great bonding time. It is a given that Paris is a beautiful city with centuries of history behind it. All I have to offer on that notion is it does indeed live up to its reputation. On my flight home, I reflected with surprise on the amount of information I had garnered in just a few days, and how fun it was to learn it all. For anyone who enjoys interactive learning, and having a bit of fun while doing it, I’d highly recommend the French Public and Private Law J-Term course.