It looks like France is the only Security Council permanent member that did not sign the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. (The US signed in 1970, but has yet to ratify, although successive US administrations have stood by the signature when queried specifically.)

So why has France not even signed the Vienna Convention? What arguments did the French government officials (or even presidents) offer against France signing the Convention?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

According to the commentaire on the "Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties: a commentary" (google books):

Considering the ius cogens concept as "nebulous", Art. 53 remains the main reason for France not ratifying the VCLT.

Article 53 states:

Article 53

Treaties conflicting with a peremptory norm of general international law (“jus cogens”)

A treaty is void if, at the time of its conclusion, it conflicts with a peremptory norm of general international law. For the purposes of the present Convention, a peremptory norm of general international law is a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character.

Which is related to Article 66:

Article 66

Procedures for judicial settlement, arbitration and conciliation

If, under paragraph 3 of article 65, no solution has been reached within a period of 12 months following the date on which the objection was raised, the following procedures shall be followed:

(a) any one of the parties to a dispute concerning the application or the interpretation of article 53 or 64 may, by a written application, submit it to the International Court of Justice for a decision unless the parties by common consent agree to submit the dispute to arbitration;

(b) any one of the parties to a dispute concerning the application or the interpretation of any of the other articles in part V of the present Convention may set in motion the procedure specified in the Annex to the Convention by submitting a request to that effect to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The ius cogens expression defines a binding law without possibility of derogation (surpression or modification of that law). This article generated a lot of debate with several other nations but for France it proved to be a red line.

That being said I have my doubts that France is not following the treaty nonetheless. Not only it is a member of the European Union, but it supports and follows the EU Court of Justice (see this). Like so many other international agreements I would guess France (and others) are operating in bona fides. Disagreement does not mean noncooperation.

NOTE: there should be somewhere an official statement from France explaining this decision. I did not find but it should probably be in the UN site Diplomatic Conferences.

As a complement to armatita's good answer.

Although I cannot locate those interventions online, France's position was exposed in front of 21st and 22nd UN General Assembly, by Mr. Jeannel (during the 910th seance) and Mr. Bresson (during the 969th seance). Maybe this can help finding them on one of the UN's websites.

France's motivations have been extensively explained a few months after the Vienna conference in this article (in French).

Dans le scrutin du 22 mai 1969 par lequel la Conférence de Vienne a adopté la Convention sur le Droit des traités, la délégation française a voté contre ce texte.(...)

Pour [le gouvernement français], les effets bénéfiques du travail de la Commission du Droit international étaient d'ores et déjà atteints dans la mesure où cette dernière avait su trouver pour de nombreuses règles traditionnelles des formules qui traduisent heureusement la pratique internationale. Mais en revanche dans les domaines où les articles projetés n'étaient pas l'affirmation de règles reconnues, le moment lui semblait mal venu de tenter de forcer l'adoption par la voie conventionnelle de notions dont le sens exact et le bien-fondé appellent encore une maturation que seul le temps peut apporter.(...)

les positions françaises se sont trouvées très éloignées, voire même opposées, sur les plus importantes des dispositions de la partie V (nullité) de la Convention, à celles défendues par une majorité(...)

Les réserves françaises portaient sur les articles relatifs à certains cas de nullité, à la manière ou à la forme de l'application de la nullité, mais surtout son opposition a été fondamentale en ce qui concerne les dispositions qui ont été adoptées concernant d'une part « le jus cogens » dans le droit des traités et d'autre part les procédures de règlement des différends.(...)

la délégation française (...) s'est bornée à annoncer son vote contre l'article 50, comme contre les articles 61 et 67 qui lui sont liés, dans une intervention qui reprend les raisons d'une opposition à un texte qui « d'avance et péremptoirement, déclare nulle toute une catégorie de traités sans que l'on sache exactement ni quels sont ces traités, ni quelles sont les normes en vertu desquelles leur nullité sera prononcée, ni comment seront édictées ces normes », et qui « ferait pénétrer, à titre permanent, la contestation dans le droit des traités ».(...)

EDIT (by Fizz): the thrust of the complaint is against part V of the convention which contains articles regarding the nullity of some kinds of treaties. The French were concerned that the types of treaties thus prohibited isn't well defined. They voted (?) against articles 50, 61, 67 as having this unclear character. Reservations about "jus cogens" are also mentioned, but without a clear/separate article reference for that (above), but they do call them out in another portion of the paper:

les dangers inacceptables des articles 53 et 64 relatifs au jus cogens

They explain that article 53 taken together with article 44, which mandates the indivisibility of treaties, makes the convention dangerous because any obscure clause that can be found unacceptable under the convention in a given treaty would render the entire treaty void. Actually, there is some further confusion, because portions of that paper refer to draft(s) of the convention, in which article 50 then became 53 later... (that's said on p. 18 of the paper; added by Fizz)


In a recent (2016) Oxford Book International Law and Empire: Historical Explorations, an article by Umut Ozsu comes back on the debate about jus cogens. Luckily, the relevant pages 299-303 are on free access and also contain some direct quotes:

France, the most rigorous and trenchant critic of international jus cogens, stressed that the question - an 'extremely important one' that may on the 'ill-defined borderline between morality and law' - needed to be considered with great care. It was necessary to examine the issue in light of the present equality and not the past inequality of states, the French declared, this being the only way to avoid 'confrontation between the upholders of different political, social or economical systems'. It was also necessary to avoid imprecision as to jus cogens' creation, scope, and effects, especially by taking steps to control its application, as the contrary would force many states, particularly those subscribing to a monist conception of the relation between domestic and international law, to evaluate the validity of treaties in accordance with a 'supreme, undefined law', eviscerating the 'climate of security and confidence' requisite for smooth interstate relations.

I'll not pretend to understand all the law subtelties here, but generally, it seems that the French delegation was very reluctant to the introduction of new juridic concepts (mostly jus cogens) without initially backing them with strong scholar works. Disagreement on those technicalities, rather than any political motivation, justified France's negative vote on the text of the Convention, and its refusal to sign it.

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