Les circulaires : un mal français déjà fort ancien

Une fois n’est pas coutume, le présent article commencera par une boutade qui n’en reste pas moins vraie par certains aspects : un brillant avocat au Conseil d’État et à la Cour de cassation – ils le sont tous – me disait, à propos des circulaires, que c’était « la rubrique des chiens écrasés ». Le propos est imagé certes, mais il traduit la profonde mésestime en laquelle les juristes tiennent ces normes internes.

Et pour cause, la production ministérielle (et industrielle) de circulaires participe, depuis bien longtemps déjà, de ce leitmotiv qu’est l’inflation législative, ou normative de manière plus générale. La culture de la circulaire est tellement ancrée dans l’esprit des agents – toutes fonctions publiques confondues – qu’un texte réglementaire ne peut être « reçu » que par ce sacro-saint canal.

Lors d’une récente audience devant le tribunal administratif, le Commissaire du gouvernement rappelait à un agent de la fonction publique hospitalière dans ses conclusions qu’il n’était pas fondé à se prévaloir d’une circulaire du 20 juillet 1982 relative aux congés exceptionnels… dès lors qu’elle était dépourvue de caractère réglementaire, le caractère réglementaire étant, rappelons le, l’une des conditions pour qu’un texte (décret, arrêté, etc.) soit susceptible de faire l’objet d’un recours pour excès de pouvoir devant les juridictions administratives.

A cette occasion, il convient de rappeler brièvement le rôle de la circulaire.

Les circulaires et instructions de service ont pour objet d’exposer le droit aux administrateurs, de le leur expliquer et de fournir des directives en vue de leur action dans le cadre de ce droit. Les instructions de service n’intéressent que le fonctionnement intérieur de l’administration et reposent sur l’autorité hiérarchique. Il arrive hélas souvent que sous le terme de circulaire se cachent en réalité une instruction de service, une directive, des recommandations, un avis, etc.

La rédaction de la circulaire revêt donc une importance capitale.

Traditionnellement, seules les circulaires réglementaires – par opposition aux circulaires interprétatives – peuvent faire l’objet d’un recours pour excès de pouvoir. On peut considérer que les circulaires qui posent une règle nouvelle par rapport à la législation ou à la réglementation existante, celles qui créent des droits ou des obligations pour les tiers, qui font grief, ont un caractère réglementaire ((CE, Ass., 29 janv. 1954, Institution Notre-Dame du Kreisker, Rec. p. 64, concl. Tricot)).

Mais cette jurisprudence a fait l’objet d’un revirement, le Conseil d’Etat abandonnant la distinction circulaire interprétative/réglementaire en tant que critère de recevabilité du recours pour excès de pouvoir en retenant un fondement relativement nouveau : la force impérative de la circulaire ((CE, Sect., 18 déc. 2002, Mme Duvignères, Rec. 463, concl. Fombeur)).

Cet arrêt énonce notamment :

 » Considérant que l’interprétation que par voie, notamment, de circulaires ou d’instructions l’autorité administrative donne des lois et règlements qu’elle a pour mission de mettre en oeuvre n’est pas susceptible d’être déférée au juge de l’excès de pouvoir lorsque, étant dénuée de caractère impératif, elle ne saurait, quel qu’en soit le bien-fondé, faire grief ; qu’en revanche, les dispositions impératives à caractère général d’une circulaire ou d’une instruction doivent être regardées comme faisant grief, tout comme le refus de les abroger […] »

Le sens de cette décision est clair : est recevable le recours dirigé contre les « dispositions impératives à caractère général » des circulaires (même interprétatives).

Tel est l’état actuel du droit relatif aux circulaires, ce que les juristes appellent le droit positif (ou le droit en vigueur).

Il n’en demeure pas moins que la loi n° 78-753 du 17 juillet 1978 concernant l’accès aux documents administratifs a exigé une publication régulière des « directives, instructions, circulaires, notes et réponses ministérielles qui comportent une interprétation du droit positif ou une description des procédures administratives ». Ces dispositions, en contraignant les ministères qui en étaient encore dépourvus à se doter d’un bulletin périodique, ont permis une meilleure transparence, à l’égard notamment des administrés.

Le décret n° 83-1025 du 28 novembre 1983 concernant les relations entre l’administration et les usagers a tenté, sans succès, de franchir une étape supplémentaire, en disposant en son article 1er que « tout intéressé est fondé à se prévaloir, à l’encontre de l’administration, des instructions, directives et circulaires publiées » en application de la loi du 17 juillet 1978 « lorsqu’elles ne sont pas contraires aux lois et règlements ».

Cet article 1er est resté lettre morte car toute circulaire qui non seulement contrevient, mais ajoute aux lois et règlements est contraire à ceux-ci et n’apporte donc aucun élément dont les administrés puissent se prévaloir ((CE, 19 janv. 1990, Mme Douveneau et M. Doré, n° 87001, Tables du Rec. p. 539 ; CE, 25 octobre 1996, Martin, n° 110511, Tables du Rec.)).

C’est pour inviter les membres de son gouvernement à davantage de prudence que le Premier ministre de l’époque, Monsieur Jacques CHIRAC, leur a adressé une circulaire du 15 juin 1987 relative aux circulaires ministérielles ((JORF, 17 juin 1987, p. 6460.)). Aux termes de cette circulaire, il apparaît que, de manière générale, cette norme est affectée de 3 vices :

  1. leur nombre est excessif ;
  2. leur qualité laisse à désirer ;
  3. leur recherche est rendue malaisée par la disparité des méthodes retenues pour assurer leur identification et leur diffusion.

Cette circulaire témoigne assurément du « souci d’éviter les dérives de la pratique administrative par rapport aux principes qui gouvernent l’exercice du pouvoir réglementaire et qui sont des règles de bonne administration, dont le fondement est d’ordre constitutionnel » ((B. Stirn, Les sources constitutionnelles du droit administratif, LDGJ 1999, p. 73.)).

Pour autant, cette circulaire n’a pas empêché la prolifération, constante et grandissante, des circulaires si l’on en juge par l’épaisseur des bulletins officiels émanant des ministères, manifestation que Georges Courteline décrivait si bien dans Messieurs Les ronds-de-cuir et qu’on peut d’une certaine manière qualifier de mal français.

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