Statutory Progress and Obstacles to Achieving an Effective Criminal Legislation Against the Modern Day Forms of Slavery: The Case of France

In August 2013, the French Parliament passed a statute meant to bring domestic law into conformity with several European legal instruments recently adopted. The statute explicitly addressed for the first time contemporary forms of slavery, servitude, and forced labor by establishing a set of four offenses that criminalize these three types of severe labor exploitation. For lawmakers as well as for many stakeholders in the fight against modern-day slavery, that achievement marked the culmination of a series of piecemeal amendments to criminal law and narrow advances in case law, which gradually enhanced the penal repression of modern-day slavery over the previous decade. This paper demonstrates that, even though the new penal provisions constitute a turning point in the criminal approach to contemporary forms of slavery, the 2013 statute only represents a milestone amid an ongoing process aimed at defining the concepts of slavery, servitude and forced labor. To that end, this essay puts into perspective the defining elements identified under human rights law by the European Court of Human Rights and the elements of the crimes established within the French penal law. It brings out the gaps and inconsistencies that affect the existing European definitions and are likely to impede the efficiency of the new national penal tools. The first section lays out the criminal provisions initially used by French judicial authorities for the repression of contemporary slavery, as well as the causes of their inadequacy. The second section of this article analyzes the legal framework drawn by the European Court of Human Rights as to the prohibition of severe forms of labor exploitation and identifies the features of European Human Rights Law that might hinder the conversion of its definitional standards into domestic criminal offenses. Finally, the third section thoroughly explores the constituent elements of the four newly-adopted crimes and seeks to appraise their ability to efficiently capture this phenomenon. By doing so, it brings to light the theoretical misconceptions that garble the current legal definitions of slavery, servitude and forced labor.