Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sarkozy’s battle with the French magistrates

(Read Angelique Crisafis reporting in the Guardian here)

Special report from Simon Grivet, Paris

Her beautiful smile was everywhere. As soon as Laetitia’s disappearance appeared to be the result of a crime, her picture made front page news. She was an 18 year-old young woman living in Pornic, a small and tranquil seaside resort near Nantes. Hints of a tragedy soon accumulated as the police and gendarmerie intensified their search: her scooter was found, wrecked, on the side of the road; her boyfriend revealed text messages she sent the night of her disappearance in which she said she had been raped; moreover, the police finally arrested one Tony Meilhon, a 32-year-old marginal who had been seen with her the final night. Meilhon had a long record: at age 16 in jail he put a stick in the rectum of another inmate, sentenced for sexual crimes. Meilhon received a 5-year prison sentence he executed entirely. His life was never stable and he accumulated 14 other convictions for theft, robbery and his latest for contempt of the court. He was free under probation but had not yet met with his counselor and recently, in contradictions with the terms of his probation, moved to a new address. Meilhon stubbornly denied having kidnapped, molested or voluntary killed Laetitia. Confronted with such heavy hints of guilt as Laetitia’s blood and DNA in the trunk of his car, he stuck to the same improbable story: he had had a traffic accident with the young woman and, as he saw her dead after the shock, he threw her body in the river Loire. After harrowing days of wait for Laetitia’s family and friends, marked by silent demonstrations, the gendarmerie discovered parts of Laetitia’s body in a pond where the main suspect used to go fishing. The first investigation of the body would indicate that Laetitia had been strangled. Meilhon remains to this day defiant and mute.

On February 3rd, Nicolas Sarkozy came to the city of Orleans – 80 miles south of Paris – for one of his favorite duty: the inauguration of the a new police station. Sarkozy held the post of minister de l’intérieur Head of the Home Office between 2002 and 2005 and built his successful presidential bid in 2007 on a very determined and energetic “law and order” ideology. Security, the “fight against crime and criminals”, those he called “rabble” needed to be taking care of, even if it meant that some urban areas had be “cleaned with a Kärcher”. This tough talk almost immediately brought hostile reactions among civil rights advocates, lawyers and some magistrates. Once elected president, Sarkozy and his first Justice secretary, Rachida Dati, carried out a draconian program to impose a new severity against crime: in 2007 tougher sentencing guidelines for recidivists, in 2008 an almost unique law in Europe enabling the State to keep behind bars a criminal who would have done all his sentence but would have been adjudged “dangerous” by a special panel of magistrates and psychiatrists, etc. These policies have had debated results: more people are incarcerated than never before in France (62 000); at the same time, some French prisons are in disrepair and globally there are not enough spots in prison, overpopulation reaches 120%; crime statistics offer a mixed bag of conflicting results as delinquency appears to be declining but not the specific violence “against the person”, i.e. acts of violence, rape, murder, etc. are increasing. More generally, 15 months before the presidential elections, Sarkozy’s political situation is uncomfortable to say the least. He has lost every local elections held in France since 2007 and his approval ratings are stuck at 30%.

In this context, a couple of days after the discovery of Laetitia’s body, Sarkozy made the following comments about this affair:
“When a person like the presumed guilty is allowed to come out of prison without being sure that he would be followed by a probation officer, it is wrong. Those who have committed this fault or let it happened will be punished, it’s the rule.” And he added “When there is such a wrong which led to such a trap, our fellow countrymen would not understand if there weren’t any punishment.”

Those comments immediately stirred an intense emotion in the Nantes’ court were Meilhon had been sentenced for contempt of the court. First, many observers were surprised that Sarkozy would call Meilhon “the presumed guilty” as a suspect is of course presumed innocent until proved guilty. But magistrates more profoundly felt abused by Sarkozy’s comments as the President seemed to be implying that judges were somehow complicit in this tragic murder. Magistrates argued that they had warned their hierarchy many times that probation officers did not have an adequate workload: in spite of the recommended 60 cases they had 120 or more. Also, the Nantes’ court had only 3 juge d’application des peines (JAP) – a specific judge in France whose specific duty it is to follow and control probation and conditional releases of criminals – when they should have 4. In short, magistrates immediately reminded Sarkozy of the dire state of the justice system in France. Ranked only 37th out of 43 European countries for its justice system budget, France has had those issues for a long time. With only 7 billion Euros, the Justice department is supposed to run some 170 courts, pay all his personnel, their pensions and also run the prison system! Many courts in France are plagued with endemic and pitiful delays: a relatively simple criminal offense like speeding could take 6 to 9 months before being examined.

In Nantes and shortly in all other courts in France, magistrates postponed non urgent matters and adopted protestations motions against Sarkozy. Those actions were already exceptional in a group which by law has no right to strike and by tradition remains conservative and cautious about any involvement in the political arena. But to the surprise of many, especially older magistrates, the movement did not weaken. It led to an historic protest last Thursday when hundreds of magistrates, wearing their black robes, joined by lawyers and police officers, expressed their anger at Sarkozy and ask for better funding.

The fight between Sarkozy and the magistrates thus followed simple lines. Confronted with an original protest from a group he had previously castigated, Sarkozy and his allies presented themselves as the voices and representatives of the victim, close to the people and sharing his simple but essential indignation against such a terrible murder. Members of the government denounced a “corporatist, selfish” movement, “led by unions” and unable to understand the feelings of the population. The media named the magistrates’ movement “a Fronde” which is not a very pleasant denomination as historically the Fronde designated the nobility’s revolt against Anne d’Autriche, Mazarin and the young Louis XIV in 1648-53, a movement of the privileged few, compared to the great Revolution of 1789.

However a poll showed that 65% of the French understand the magistrates’ movement. Thursday night, Sarkozy spent 15 minutes in his 2 and a half hour televised show on the topic of security and justice. On the issues, he did not bulge: if mistakes were made in the Meilhon’s case, sanctions will be handed out. Moreover there will not be any new funding for the justice system. But he had to reassure the millions of viewers that “the immense majority of the French magistrates are doing an excellent job”. The following day, the magistrates’ unions expressed their disappointment and called for a continuance of the movement. Non urgent cases will be postponed again next week and it remains to be seen how the movement will end.

This episode illustrates several traits of the French political situation in a time of “government through crime” in all Occidental nations. First, Sarkozy plays the well-known “law and order” tactic: not only does he present himself as tough on crime and deeply concerned with victims but he also strongly criticizes the magistrates for being either incompetent or guilty of laxity. Second, the magistrates did react to this direct aggression although clumsily at times. The apprehension born out of the massive Outreau scandal – a dozen innocents spent 2 to 3 years in prison for imaginary pedophile crimes – has not disappeared. Sarkozy did play the Outreau card Thursday night reminding viewers that the main investigative magistrate responsible for it had only received a reprimand from his peers. However, the magistrates managed to set up an organized movement which was well received by the public opinion. Sarkozy’s operation of blaming the magistrates for the shortcomings of his policies might well fail this time.

Simon Grivet
History teacher, France

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