- France - justice - Nicolas Sarkozy
Magistrates go on strike over political 'interference'
French magistrates took to the streets of Nantes on Thursday in anger at President Nicolas Sarkozy, who they accuse of proposing reforms that threaten the independence of an already overworked and underfunded judiciary.
French judges and magistrates, in open rebellion against President Nicolas Sarkozy, have gone on strike and brought the country’s justice system to a juddering halt.
On Thursday judges from across the country took to the streets of the western port city of Nantes to show their anger with the president. They say Sarkozy has been interfering with the judicial system and planning reforms that threaten the judiciary’s independence.
Funding is also a big issue, and France’s magistrates believe they are chronically underfunded and overworked.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back came in relation to comments the president made after the murder of a young waitress last month.
Magistrates were furious that Sarkozy said the main suspect in what has come to be known as the "Laetitia affair" was “presumed guilty” before he had even gone to trial.
The president then further angered the judiciary by openly criticising the courts for not having appointed the suspect, who was recently released from prison, with a parole officer, saying this oversight allowed the suspect to kill again.
“It’s an old habit of his, using people’s legitimate feelings of outrage for ends that are clearly electoral and demagogical,” Nicolas Leger of the USM magistrates’ union told the Associated Press.
Lack of funding
But the animosity is rooted in complexities that go beyond the president’s disparaging comments.
It boils down to cash, and the judges’ impression that French courts are chronically underfunded and overworked.
In October the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) released a report showing that France spends considerably less on its justice system than its European neighbours.
CEPEJ secretary Stephane Leyenberger explained that the report was a detailed comparison of 16 northern European countries and that, “France came out very low in terms of budget allocated for justice.”
He added: “A big budget does not necessarily mean that a justice system is more efficient, but if the spending is too small, achieving proper efficiency becomes impossible.”
The figures speak for themselves. Germany, for example, spends 103 euros per person on its justice system. In France, that figure is 57 euros.
But in terms of efficiency, France is not doing well either, according to the CEPEJ report.
France has three prosecutors and nine magistrates per 100,000 people, while Germany has three times as many magistrates.
The result, according to both the CEPEJ and French magistrates, is that the courts are almost incapable of getting through all their case files.
The CEPEJ estimates that it would take France 286 working days to clear its backlog if no new cases were taken on, compared with 129 days in Austria.
“There is a serious lack of legal personnel in France,” said Leyenberger. “France simply needs more magistrates -- and getting them would considerably improve the country’s justice system.”