Star lawyer Dupond-Moretti named justice minister in French government reshuffle

French President Emmanuel Macron and his new prime minister, Jean Castex, named a new government on Monday evening that might not have been long on surprises. But the appointment of leading criminal defence lawyer Éric Dupond-Moretti, a dreaded figure in French courtrooms, to head the justice ministry was assuredly chief among them.

French lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti at the Paris courthouse on May 13, 2019.
French lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti at the Paris courthouse on May 13, 2019. © Stringer, AFP

The 59-year-old Dupond-Moretti is no stranger to the spotlight. Known for his outspokenness, as well as a certain venomous hostility towards judges, the star counsel is nicknamed the "Acquittator" — a portmanteau of Acquittal and Terminator — for his impressive record in defending clients. He replaces Socialist jurist Nicole Belloubet in the job.

Dupond-Moretti has featured in many of the highest profile trials in recent years. He defended politicians Patrick Balkany and Jérôme Cahuzac in their tax fraud cases. In 2017, he took on the controversial defence of Abdelkader Merah, the brother of Toulouse terrorist Mohamed Merah. Merah killed three French paratroopers and then three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in the Toulouse region in 2012 before dying in a police raid. His brother was accused of terrorism-related offences for inspiring and aiding his brother and subsequently sentenced to 20 years in prison.  

"It is the most difficult trial of my career," Dupond-Moretti said at the time. "I got a right bollocking, I was insulted. People said I was a shame to my profession. People threatened my children." But it was "an honour for me" to defend him, he said.  

The lawyer explained that his responsibility was not to uphold morality but only the law, adding that he could have even defended "Hitler as a person" if he had been asked, although "on the condition of not justifying Nazi ideology". 

Earlier this year, Dupond-Moretti joined WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's international defence team.

Unstoppable force 

Dupond-Moretti began his career in Douai, northern France, in 1984. Over the course of more than 30 years in the courtroom he has won more than 120 acquittals for clients. Among his clients were Roselyne Godard, one of the accused in the notorious Outreau child sex abuse case; university professor Jacques Viguier, who was accused of killing his wife; and Jean Castela, accused of ordering the killing of Claude Érignac, the highest-ranking representative of the French state in Corsica — successfully obtaining acquittals in each case.

Dupond-Moretti is known for not pulling punches in the courtroom. He makes use of his imposing physical stature at trial to pressure witnesses for the prosecution. 

Naming him to head the justice ministry on the Place Vendôme in the heart of Paris comes as a surprise, not least in light of the hardline stances Dupond-Moretti has taken against judges in France. Politically he had always been considered left-leaning and had backed, at least in private, then Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry for the party's nomination ahead of the 2012 presidential election. Dupond-Moretti, whose partner is Canadian pop star Isabelle Boulay, had been slated to begin an opinion segment on morning radio for Europe 1 in the fall. 

Lawyers pleased, judges worried

"This nomination is a gesture aimed at reassuring lawyers," Christiane Féral-Schuhl, president of the National Bar Council, told AFP. "Lawyers expect strong political measures — a minister who supports them, who knows what it is to be a lawyer. Éric Dupond-Moretti embodies that," added Féral-Schuhl, whose organisation represents 70,000 French lawyers.

"Ever since Robert Badinter (the widely respected figure who oversaw the end of capital punishment in France), no judicial lawyer had been named as justice minister," noted Estellia Araez, president of the left-leaning Lawyer's Union of France. "It is auspicious that a colleague who has always defended liberties, freedom of speech, the place of lawyers at trial, and who took part in the battle against the pension reform, be named minister of justice," she added. 

Judges, however, appear less keen. Lucille Rouet, who heads the left-leaning Magistrature Union, said she "wonders about this signal". "We are wondering a little with regard to his most recent remarks about the PNF (the national prosecutors' office that specialises in financial crimes) and about certain judges," Rouet said, adding that she hopes Dupond-Moretti will do everything possible to "reconcile" lawyers and judges in his new post. 

Indeed, the naming of such a strong personality to head the justice ministry comes after Dupond-Moretti filed a legal complaint over revelations of secret wiretapping by the PNF in June.

Dupond-Moretti accused the financial crimes office of acting like "spooks", spying on him and other lawyers by going through telephone records to identify a so-called mole in a wiretapping scandal. 

He also denounced the sweeping power of judges and called for broad consultations on the justice system.  

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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