French Judges Strike to Stop Sarkozy's Meddling

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Damien Meyer / AFP / Getty Images

A marble statue representing Themis, the goddess of justice, at Brittany's parliament, the headquarters of the Rennes appeal court

French investigative magistrates — independent legal sleuths who lead inquiries into suspected wrongdoing in sensitive cases involving state security, finance and politics that sitting judges later preside over in court — have long been a favored enemy and scapegoat of the nation's politicians on both the left and right. But now the judicial officials are mounting a major push-back against what they decry as efforts by the government to meddle in France's legal system. And in an unprecedented display of unity, they're being joined by other equally outraged members of the country's judicial and law-enforcement system.

Courthouses in some 20 French cities started the week closed to all but the most urgent cases while 150 of France's 200 major tribunals prepare to join the growing protest movement of investigating and sitting judges, prosecutors, bailiffs, court recorders and police officers. The action, which is building up to a nationwide strike of justice employees on Feb. 10, is in response to criticisms that French President Nicolas Sarkozy leveled at the justice system last week, when he lamented its "serious dysfunctions" and pledged to punish judicial officials who are found to have been negligent or erroneous in their decisions.

Sarkozy's comments were sparked by the gruesome murder of an 18-year-old woman whose accused killer is a multirecidivist criminal with 15 convictions to his name for a variety of often violent offenses. After his release from prison and parole late last year, terrified members of his family alerted police of their fears that he was unstable and a threat. "When you let an individual like that out of prison without making sure that he will be followed by a parole officer, the judiciary is at fault," Sarkozy said on Feb. 3, two days after parts of the victim's body were found in a pond. "When errors lead to this sort of outcome, our fellow citizens won't understand if there aren't sanctions. We'll do what's necessary to be sure responsibilities are assumed and decisions taken."

Members of Sarkozy's rightist government have joined in on the finger wagging and on Feb. 7 reacted indignantly to the magistrates' protest, calling it unjustified and irresponsible. Also like their President, they have pledged to punish any justice officials whose negligence is found to have resulted in the alleged murderer's freedom — a curiously confident promise, detractors say, considering that investigations into the case have only just begun.

Angry members of France's justice system charge that the offensive is simply the exploitation of a headline story — and that it masks the government's real goal: to browbeat legal authorities into doing their political bidding. If so, it wouldn't be the first time. Sarkozy has repeatedly unleashed accusations against what he derides as feckless court judges unwilling to mete out hard sentences. He's also tried to push through several reforms that opponents say were aimed at formally placing all justice authorities under the power of ruling politicians. That includes Sarkozy's failed 2009 attempt to altogether eliminate the independent investigating magistrates who are central to the nation's legal system. But the difference this time is that Sarkozy didn't target just investigative and sitting judges but indicted the entire justice structure — as well as the police he usually lionizes to better play off his judiciary adversaries.

"He went too far by attacking the entire system and chose a really bad case to do so with, because — as horrible as this case was — the suspect served out his sentence, committed nothing else the police could hold him for and had to be released under the law," says judge Marc Trévidic, president of the French Association of Investigating Magistrates, explaining why the response to the government's attack has been so broad. "Worse still, the effort to intimidate legal authorities into submission also acts as a smoke screen to hide the utter failure of Sarkozy's own law-and-order policies to halt the rise of violent crime — thanks in large part to his cost cutting that has left justice officials and police forces understaffed, underfunded and completely swamped."

Indeed, while austerity-focused conservatives point out that funding for the legal system has risen over the past decade — up 4.15% for this year alone — France's $9.5 billion justice budget for 2011 ranks it 37th of 43 European nations in terms of percentage of GNP per capita. And that has consequences. For example, in Nantes, in western France — close to where the young woman was murdered — just three judges juggle nearly 4,000 pending parole cases at any given time. That's typical of France's overloaded judicial system — and only part of the reason why justice employees now refuse to accept the blame from politicians for any flaws in their handling of the impossibly large task they face.

"There's also real indignation at seeing Sarkozy — who as chief magistrate in France's legal structure is supposed to guarantee its integrity and independence — exploiting this tragedy to influence and gain control of the system," says Trévidic. "This isn't the U.S., where separation of power is a constitutional protection. We have to battle to keep what independence we have in order to keep serving justice as best we can — and with the limited means we're given."