Lawyers: Floriot Loses One

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When aerial hijackers delivered Moise Tshombe to an Algerian jail this month, his wife turned to one of the few men who might have saved her husband from extradition to the Congo—and almost certain death. Parisian Lawyer René Edmond Floriot, 64, faced appalling odds: the Congolese had already convicted Tshombe of not only treason but also murder and robbery. With eloquence, Floriot contended that the Congolese had actually amnestied Tshombe last fall. But last week he lost.

Though Tshombe could not be extradited for purely political reasons, ruled the Algerian Supreme Court, "Algerian justice does not shield murder and robbery." If President Houari Boumediene ratifies the Court's decision Tshombe must go home—presumably to his doom. For the best-known avocat in the French-speaking world, it was a rare, bitter defeat. In 20,000 cases, Floriot has lost only two clients to the guillotine and about ten to the firing squad.

In his most spectacular murder trial (1960), Floriot defended Swiss Lawyer-Politician Pierre Jaccoud, onetime dean of the Geneva bar. Police had the murder weapon; witnesses insisted that Jaccoud had shot and stabbed the father of a man who had stolen his mistress. But Floriot harried the witnesses into damaging concessions about the murder weapon, wrung lurid testimony from the mistress. He airily dismissed Jaccoud's lack of alibi: "Only criminals have alibis. Intelligent people never remember how they spend their evenings." Jaccoud got seven years.

War Crimes. Last year Floriot defended two Paris detectives implicated in the kidnap-murder of Algerian Rebel Leader Ben Barka; one was acquitted, the other got six years. In 1961, he braved President de Gaulle's wrath in winning a suspended sentence for General Gustave Mentre, an accused conspirator in the Algiers coup.

A demon for detail, Floriot furiously drives a research staff of six lawyers, known as "l'usine Floriot" (the Floriot factory). Gifted with prodigious memory, he can simplify the most complex case for the dullest of jurors. While other French lawyers deliver elegantly vague speeches to nodding, berobed judges, Floriot deals in facts, not forensic flourishes. In a profession heavily weighted toward lawyers with social standing, Floriot has succeeded entirely on drive and shrewdness.

Son of a Paris municipal clerk, Floriot studied law at the Sorbonne, started practicing before his 21st birthday. In the 1930s, he prospered by winning divorces for the wealthy in a week, though the cumbersome process usually takes two to three years in France. After the war, he unabashedly defended war criminals and collaborators. He saved Otto Abetz, the hated German ambassador to Paris, from execution; Abetz got 20 years, was later freed, and died in a car accident.

Defending Nero. Floriot also defended Dr. Marcel Petiot who, between 1942 and 1944, lured 63 Jewish refugees to his Paris house with promises of help; and was accused of robbing and killing at least 27 of them. Floriot proved that three or more of the alleged victims were German agents and that some of them were still alive. But though Floriot won professional respect for his tenacious defense, Petiot went to the guillotine. Floriot went too—in France, the lawyer traditionally takes the last walk with his client.