Since 1996, maternal mortality is registered as part of a permanent confidential inquiry in France. The National Committee has studied all cases recorded to assess the cause of death and the avoidable obstetrical complications involved. Recommendations are proposed. In 1996 and 1997, there were 196 maternal deaths in France; 165 could be analyzed. The cause was obstetrical in 123 cases (74%), non-obstetrical in 26 (16%), and unidentified in 16 (10%). Ninety-seven direct deaths occurred (78% of the obstetrical mortality cases); 31 cases of hemorrhage including 19 post partum, 20 cases of pregnancy-induced hypertension, 10 cases of eclampsia and 7 of pre-eclampsia, 16 cases of amniotic fluid embolism, 11 cases of thromboembolism and 10 cases of sepsis. The National Committee considered that 54% of these deaths were avoidable: 87% for hemorrhage, 80% for sepsis, and 65% for hypertensive diseases. The deaths due to amniotic fluid embolism were not considered avoidable. This mortality stemmed from substandard care, delayed treatment, missed diagnosis, and professional errors. Clinical recommendations are proposed for post partum hemorrhage, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, prevention of maternal infection, and thromboembolism prophylaxy.