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French pension reform: Striking lawyers face choice to ‘fight now or die later’

Miriam Baghouli, a lawyer from the Seine-Saint-Denis Bar Association, demonstrates in front of the Bobigny District Court on January 21, 2020.
Miriam Baghouli, a lawyer from the Seine-Saint-Denis Bar Association, demonstrates in front of the Bobigny District Court on January 21, 2020. © Sarah Leduc / France 24

French lawyers are keeping up the pressure against the French government’s proposed overhaul to the pension system. Lawyers in the impoverished Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis have been striking since January 6 – postponing all court hearings despite the possible effects on some of their vulnerable clients. 

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It is 9:15am on January 21 and the concrete hall of the High Court in the town of Bobigny in the Seine-Saint-Denis department is almost empty. It has been two weeks since the lawyers here voted for a total strike to defend their current pension plan. Extended at least until January 29, the movement has received much public support.

Seine-Saint-Denis is often referred to as simply, "the 93". This district in the northeastern suburb of Paris is one of the smallest and poorest departments in France. It is widely known as a left-wing stronghold and the French Communist Party maintain a strong local presence. 

Being one of Seine-Saint-Denis' 600 lawyers requires real commitment. "The Bobigny district court is a humane court, where we encounter astonishing situations,” says the president of the Seine-Saint-Denis Bar Association, Frédéric Gabet, who has been working there for 30 years. “This creates a sense of solidarity between us, which explains why calls to strike are being respected.”

Lawyers of the bar of the 93 demonstrate against the pension reform in front of the Bobigny court, January 21, 2020.
Lawyers of the bar of the 93 demonstrate against the pension reform in front of the Bobigny court, January 21, 2020. © Sarah Leduc / France 24

The Bobigny High Court is the second-largest court in France and the biggest for children. It is located in the most underprivileged departments of France: 70% of the population is eligible for legal aid.

The income for lawyers who have chosen to practise here is also among the lowest in France.

"People think we lawyers are rich. But what is left at the end of the month – after paying charges, fees and office expenses – rarely exceeds €1,500," explained Anne Erminy, a lawyer in Bobigny and a voluntary public defender at the juvenile court. After 24 years at the bar, Erminy finds herself thinking more regularly about quitting, as do many of her colleagues.

'We know the costs'

Following the example of the other legal bars in France, lawyers of the 93 are ramping up their protest movement. Their methods of dissent range from traditional protest marches and banners to the more original – discarding their official robes, producing viral videos, staging flash mobs and even performing the haka.

The strikers mobilise to fight for their pensions and postpone hearings every day. They have been very successful in Bobigny, where judges there have agreed to postpone 80% to 90% of correctional cases and 100% of those in the juvenile court (tribunal pour enfants or TPE).

This hardline approach poses difficulties for those arriving for their day in court. Myriam Baghouli spends her days walking the corridors of the TPE, trying to explain the reasons for the strike to families waiting for a trial that will now not take place.

The controversial pension reform project provides for the abolition of special schemes in favour of a universal system. It will therefore lead to the disappearance of the stand-alone scheme for lawyers.


Freelance lawyers fear that their contributions will increase. With the proposed new method of calculation, they could double. Lawyers currently contribute only 14% of their income, which could rise to 28%.  At present, their minimum retirement pension is set at €1,450 per month. This would fall to €1,000 in the future scheme.


Confronting this tension, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet has proposed that lawyers should keep a fund "specific to their profession". The government has also made proposals in the form of a 33 percent allowance applied to the gross income base for lawyers, in order to cushion the increase in contributions.
 

"We are not on strike because we want to be on strike. We know very well what it costs, physically and psychologically, to the people who have had their trial postponed," the lawyer, a specialist in juvenile cases and an active member of the SAF French lawyers’ union, told FRANCE 24.

For Baghouli, who grew up in the 93 and has been a member of the Bobigny bar for 11 years, there is no question of working anywhere else. "My robe is a cloak of justice. If I'd wanted to practice merger-acquisition law (a particularly lucrative practice), I wouldn't have signed up here," she says.

In other words, to be one of the lawyers whose income exceeds the median of €40,000, you have to practice elsewhere.

The lawyers are, of course, aware of the potential repercussions for clients from postponing cases. Gabet has many such examples. He describes a prisoner who is desperate to plead for his release; the vulnerable worker who will have to wait two more years in the hope of receiving compensation from an industrial tribunal; the woman who needs a restraining order for an abusive spouse; or the foreigner who has gambled his entry into the country on successfully obtaining a court hearing, now cancelled.

"Almost all the lawyers at the Bobigny bar are on strike and this forces them to ask themselves ethical questions. In these courtrooms, we plead many vital cases. But this is an autonomous profession and it's up to everyone to make their own decisions in good conscience," said Gabet.

But the lawyers of the 93 are determined to persist with their fight. However, they do recognise the need to explain their position, especially to those who are suffering most from the fact that cases are being postponed due to the strike.

Striking lawyers from Seine-Saint-denis protest at the court in Bobigny against the pension reform, January 21 2020.
Striking lawyers from Seine-Saint-denis protest at the court in Bobigny against the pension reform, January 21 2020. © Sarah Leduc / France 24

Clients alone in front of judge

In the "Zapi" court (or The Waiting Zone for Pending Cases) at Charles de Gaulle airport, the files of foreigners who do not meet the conditions for entry into France are under examination. "The only possible outcome for many of them is to be sent back to their country," said Baghouli.

On January 21, only three people are due to appear in this court. One of them was due to use a court-appointed lawyer – when unable to obtain their own lawyer, the accused can get help from a lawyer appointed by the president of the bar.

As a result of the strikes, one woman on trial will now find herself alone in front of the judge. But the strikers have not completely abandoned her to her fate. Even though they are refusing to plead cases, they have studied the specifics of this case and explained to the client the necessary arguments for her defence. 

"She was fully briefed – presented with the points of conclusion, the arguments to be put forward and the invalidity of the procedure. But it is true that, ultimately, she will have to argue alone," said Catherine Herrero, coordinator for such cases at the Zapi. 

In this case, the detained asked to be returned to her country of origin. 

‘Fight now or die later’

While being reasonably accommodating at Bobigny, the judges are beginning to worry about "stockpiles building up" and intricate cases on the not-too-distant horizon. "I have applications coming in requesting continued detention. Aren't you setting up an emergency cell?" a worried judge asked the strikers in the corridors of the High Court.

This is an option being debated, but the lawyers will not consider it at the moment. "This has to be a hard strike. We don't have a choice – we have to fight now or die later. If we don't make it to the end, what's the point of all this?” asked Baghouli, who said she doesn't imagine stopping the protests until the total withdrawal of the pension reform plans.

To convince the judges to continue to support their fight, Baghouli presented a powerful argument.

"This proposed reform project will have a direct impact on the functioning of the Bobigny High Court,” she said. “The doubling of our subscription costs will force us to either absorb it by getting rid of our official commission or to increase our fees, which would in turn make them impossible for the general public in Seine-Saint-Denis", she told the judge sitting in courtroom number 6.

And her reasoning is endorsed by Gabat, the Bar Association president. “If we have to double our contributions as planned in the pension reform plan, many will no longer be able to make a living from their profession. Firms will simply disappear."

"If there is no longer a local lawyer in Seine-Saint-Denis to represent them, in cases of divorce or industrial tribunal or the placement of minors, who will defend them?"

This piece is an adaptation by Sophie Gorman from the original in French.
 

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