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Last Updated: Monday, 10 December 2007, 12:56 GMT
French judges rebel over justice plan
By Henri Astier
BBC News

Protest by French magistrates in Paris, 29 November 2007
Magistrates and lawyers demonstrated across France
The wheels of justice are said to grind slowly, but those of French justice could move at a particularly leisurely pace in the coming weeks.

The reason is growing anger at a planned reform of the justice system.

Unions representing magistrates and court workers have called an "administrative blockage of jurisdictions", aimed at delaying "non-urgent" tasks.

They are hoping to build on the momentum generated by nationwide strikes by judges and lawyers - who last month joined transport workers and civil servants in mass anti-government protests.

On 29 November, Parisians were treated to the rare sight of robed demonstrators burning copies of the criminal code, and calling their minister the "gravedigger of justice".

The government insists French courts are in urgent need of an overhaul.

It says the faults of the system have been highlighted by such cases as the Outreau paedophile trial - in which innocents were jailed in 2004, only to be cleared two years later.

"The French want a justice system that is closer to them, more effective, and more accessible," Justice Minister Rachida Dati wrote in a newspaper article last month.

Outdated system

Ms Dati, the daughter of poor North African immigrants, is widely seen as symbolising President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to turn France into a multi-racial meritocracy.

Ms Dati wants to redraw France's "judicial map" - the location and jurisdiction of courts - to focus scarce resources where they are most needed.

The assumption that you must scrap courts does not make sense
Bruno Thouzellier
USM magistrates' union
Population shifts and growing demand mean the current system is outdated - with some courts struggling with ballooning caseloads and others functioning part-time.

Ms Dati is proposing to scrap almost 300 courts - including 178 lower criminal courts, more than one in three - and transfer their responsibilities to larger ones.

This is anathema to the main magistrates' union, USM, which argues that the local courts provide an essential service.

"Smaller structures work best," USM's head Bruno Thouzellier told the BBC News website.

"The assumption that you must scrap courts does not make sense."

Neither would the plan address the issues raised by the Outreau affair, Mr Thouzellier says. Like all French examining magistrates, the judge who took the case to trial was based in a higher court.

Local difficulty

Ms Dati's plan is also drawing fire from mayors and other elected officials in many towns, which stand to lose important symbols of respectability.

Rachida Dati
Rachida Dati is determined to see her reform plan through
"A tribunal brings high-profile professionals," notes Paxatagore, a French legal blogger.

"A tribunal, like other administrative bodies, means jobs."

The new "judicial map" is also being resisted by lawyers, who may face disruptive and costly removal if courts are to be transferred.

For the time being, the government is standing firm in the face of what it regards as special interests - as it is doing in the case of those opposing its pension reforms.

Ms Dati says her plan was part of the campaign programme endorsed by voters in May's presidential election, and she will not back down.

Stern stuff

However she may find it more difficult to face down the protesters than some of her ministerial colleagues.

Details of the pension reforms, for instance, are currently being discussed by government officials and union representatives.

President Sarkozy's drive to scrap the privileges enjoyed by some public sector workers is backed by a majority of voters.

However none of this is true of Ms Dati's reform of the justice system. She cannot count on a groundswell of support for reducing the number of courts.

Furthermore, her union critics say no meaningful consultation has taken place.

Mr Thouzellier's USM and other groups met justice ministry officials back in June - but the process ended there.

"There was no dialogue, " he says. "It was very much 'take it or leave it'."

However Ms Dati has in the past proven that she is made of stern stuff.

In July she faced fierce criticism over her allegedly authoritarian style after two aides resigned - but steered through parliament a controversial law on repeat offenders.

The wheels of justice may grind slowly in the coming weeks - but Ms Dati is determined to act fast, and she may get her way.

Profile: Rachida Dati
18 May 07 |  Europe

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