Duties of reserve, discretion, neutrality and professional secrecy in the public service

Verified 23 October 2023 - Legal and Administrative Information Directorate (Prime Minister)

You are a public official (civil servant or contract employee), you are subject to reserve duties and neutrality, to one obligation of professional discretion and, in some cases, you are required to professional secrecy.

Duty of restraint means the obligation of any public official to exercise restraint and restraint in expression written and oral of his personal opinions.

The obligation of reservation is not conceived as a ban on exercising the basic rights of the citizen: freedom of opinion and freedom of expression.

The duty of restraint does not concern the content of your opinions, but their mode of expression.

The reservation obligation shall apply during and outside working time.

The duty of restraint applies more or less rigorously according to the following criteria:

  • Place in the hierarchy (the expression of senior officials is judged more severely, for example)
  • Circumstances in which you express yourself (for example, a trade union official acting within his mandate has more freedom)
  • Advertising of your comments (for example, whether you are speaking on social media, in a national or local newspaper)
  • Forms of expression (for example, whether or not you have used abusive or outrageous terms)

The obligation of reserve also requires you to avoid in all circumstances conduct that could undermine the consideration of the public service by users.

It is up to the hierarchical authority to which you are subject to determine whether you have failed to fulfill your duty of restraint.

Failure to comply with the obligation to reserve may justify that disciplinary proceedings be engaged against you.

Example :

The following facts have been considered by the court to constitute a breach of the obligation to reserve:

  • Insults uttered in a violent tone in the offices of a town hall, in the presence of the mayor
  • Posted, by a municipal officer, on the Facebook page of a business managed by the 1er deputy of the municipality which employed him, with a message containing insulting and insulting remarks towards the latter
  • Repeated breaches of the hierarchical respect and duty of restraint shown by an officer whose behavior was outrageous, excessive and perpetually objectionable. The person had implicated the elected officials in numerous letters in discourteous terms as well as officials of the commune, and had spoken through the press about his personal situation


You remain subject to the duty of reserve during periods of inactivity in the public service. For example, during periods of availability or unpaid leave or during periods of suspension of duties.

The obligation of professional discretion refers to the obligation of any public official to not to disclose information concerning the activity, tasks and functioning of its administration.

As a public official, the obligation of discretion relates to facts, information or documents that cannot be communicated to users, of which you are aware in the exercise or in the course of the exercise of your duties.

The obligation is particularly high for certain categories of staff, such as the military or the judiciary.

This obligation shall apply with regard to users but also between public officials, with regard to your colleagues who, by virtue of their duties, are not aware of the information in question.

Trade union officials remain subject to this obligation.

Failure to comply with the obligation of professional discretion may justify that disciplinary proceedings be engaged against you.

This obligation can only be lifted by decision of your hierarchical authority.

Example :

The following facts were considered by the judge to constitute a breach of the obligation of professional discretion:

  • Communication of police records to unauthorized third parties, repeated consultation of the police records for purposes outside the service and communication of confidential information
  • Full reproduction, by an agent, of an internal instruction addressed to him in an open letter drafted by the union to which he belongs, and distributed to all agents of the community

The obligation of professional secrecy requires a public official to not to disclose personal information about users of which he is aware in the course of his duties.

The obligation of professional secrecy concerns information concerning the health, behavior, family situation, ... of users. It aims to protect the material and moral interests of individuals.

However, professional secrecy may be waived if the user concerned by the information so authorizes.

Moreover, in some cases, the waiver of professional secrecy is mandatory.

This is the case if it ensures the protection of individuals (e.g. disclosure of abuse) or the preservation of public health (e.g. disclosure of diseases requiring surveillance).

This is also the case if the waiver of professional secrecy ensures the preservation of public order (denunciation of crimes or offenses) and the proper conduct of legal proceedings (testimony in court, for example).

In addition, administrations must respond to requests for information from the tax administration.

Professional secrecy shall not prevent the disclosure of documents to the Defender of Rights.

In all cases, the communication of information concerning national defense, State security or foreign policy is prohibited.

The disclosure of professional secrets outside authorized cases is punishable by one year imprisonment and €15,000 of fine.

Example :

Disseminating notes and reports containing tax information to colleagues and superiors via professional messaging constitutes a breach of professional secrecy.

Public officials enjoy freedom of conscience, as do all citizens.

A public official is free to belong or not to belong to a religion and to exercise a religious practice in a private capacity under freedom of opinion.

In return, he must comply with an obligation of neutrality, pursuant to which he must not, in the performance of his duties, engage in the following conduct:

  • To demonstrate his religious, philosophical or political convictions towards users and his colleagues,
  • Prevail over a religion.

Thus, public officials must not wear any religious signs intended to mark their membership of a religion.

He must not proselytize, that is to say have an attitude aimed at spreading his religious beliefs to users and his colleagues.

More generally, public officials must treat all people equally and respect their freedom of conscience and dignity.

Example :

The judge considered that the use of his office as a ticket agent to provide public service users with printed religious material constituted a breach of the obligation of neutrality.