A group of NGOs backed by two million citizens had filed a complaint accusing the French state of failing to act to halt climate change, in what has been dubbed the "case of the century".
In its ruling on Wednesday, the Paris administrative court recognised ecological damage linked to climate change and held the French state responsible for failing to fully meet its goals in reducing greenhouse gases.
The court ordered the state to pay the symbolic sum of 1 euro in compensation for "moral prejudice", a common practice in France.
The French case is part of a mounting push from climate campaigners across the world to use courts against governments.
>> French state faces landmark lawsuit over climate inaction
An international accord signed in Paris five years ago aims to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, and preferably to 1.5 degrees.
But experts say governments are far from meeting their commitments and anger is growing among the younger generation over inaction, symbolised by the campaigns of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg.
France missing its targets
French President Emmanuel Macron has been very vocal about his support for climate change action.
He pushed in December for beefing up the European Union’s 2030 targets to reduce greenhouse gases by at least 55% compared with 1990 levels — up from the previous 40% target.
But Oxfam France, Greenpeace France and two other organisations say Macron’s lobbying for global climate action is not backed up by sufficient domestic measures to curb emissions blamed for global warming.
They note that France is missing its national targets set under the 2015 Paris Agreement, and the country delayed most of its efforts until after 2020.
The four NGOs that brought the case called Wednesday's court ruling "a first historic victory for climate” as well as a “victory for truth," saying that until now France has denied the “insufficiency of its climate policies”.
The Paris court gave itself two months to decide on measures to repair the problem and stop things from getting worse.
It decided that awarding money wasn't appropriate in this case, adding that reparations should centre on fixing the failure to respect goals for lowering greenhouse gases.