PARIS - Animals are for the first time to get an official status of their own under France's 200 year-old civil code, in a move that reflects the country's arrival from a rural to urban society.
Justice Minister Dominique Perben this week approved the recommendation of an expert's report that animals should be recognised to be "protected property, as living and sentient beings."
When the civil code was drawn up by Napoleon in 1804 animals were considered primarily as working farm beasts, and they were designated merely as goods that could be owned.
The change to the civil code -- which is likely to go into law by the end of the year -- will create for animals a third kind of property, alongside movable and immovable goods.
An alternative suggestion that animals should be accorded a new status midway between humans and property was rejected.
"Compared to 1804, men and animals now live together in a way that is completely different from two centuries ago," Perben said.
"What has to be borne in mind is that there are now millions and millions of living beings that accompany man throughout his life, especially those men and women who are the most fragile, vulnerable and lonely," he said.
There are estimated to be around 16 million domestic pets in France.
Animal rights campaigners welcomed the proposed change, which brings France in line with legislation in the EU and other European countries.
Under the EU's proposed constitution -- to go before a referendum in France on May 29 -- states are obliged to "pay full regard to the requirements of animal welfare."
"We have been fighting for years for this reform... which will make it possible to reinforce and respect the status of animals," the Brigitte Bardot Foundation said in a statement.
Animals already enjoy protection under France's criminal code.