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France's 'Acquittator' sows controversy as new justice minister

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Paris (AFP)

The surprise appointment by French President Emmanuel Macron of a star lawyer as justice minister has created a storm of controversy, with critics slamming a "declaration of war" but supporters seeing a real chance at progress on a series of judicial reforms.

Eric Dupond-Moretti is one of France's most high profile defence lawyers and has earned the nickname of the "Acquittator" for his track record in getting clients acquitted.

An intimidating figure who has likened the courtroom to a theatre, Dupond-Moretti swore as recently as 2018 that he would never be justice minister, saying no one would have the "utterly absurd" idea -- "and frankly I would never accept such a thing".

Yet the burly 59-year-old was nonetheless Macron's choice to lead the justice ministry in a cabinet reshuffle under new Prime Minister Jean Castex.

Dupond-Moretti was given a rough welcome in the National Assembly on Wednesday as he made his first appearance in parliament, loudly heckled by opposition MPs and showing signs of his political inexperience.

"You were never meant to occupy that seat and there you are now," snapped Antoine Savignat of the right-wing Republicans opposition party.

As tensions rose, Dupond-Moretti looked unusually uneasy and said: "I beg of you, It's already hard for me. It's my first time."

- 'So divisive' -

As a lawyer, Dupond-Moretti has won 120 acquittals for his clients, reportedly a record.

He has also taken on some of the toughest cases, most notably that of Abdelkader Merah, brother of the French jihadist Mohamed Merah who shot dead seven people in southwestern France 2012.

Dupond-Moretti said it had been an "honour" to defend Abdelkader Merah, who was convicted of being an accomplice and is serving a 30-year prison term.

The partner of Canadian singer Isabelle Boulay, Dupond-Moretti last year even starred in his own one-man theatre show called "Eric Dupond-Moretti to the Bar".

His talents have earned the respect of many lawyers. But his confrontational and highly mediatised style have angered judges who loudly objected to his appointment.

"Naming a person who is so divisive and who has such scorn for the judiciary is a declaration of war," said Celine Parisot, head of the USM magistrates union.

France's national conference of prosecutors also sounded alarm about "numerous comments" by Dupond-Moretti that "arouse worry and questions."

He has also aroused the ire of feminists by criticising the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment, saying such complaints "should be made not to the media, not on social networks, but to the judiciary."

- 'Defended freedoms' -

Taking office on Tuesday, Dupond-Moretti tried to strike a more conciliatory tone, saying he was extending his hand to the "whole judicial family" and promising "dialogue."

He insisted that the ministry of justice was not a "the ministry of war... but the ministry of freedoms".

He has taken a strong line on urging France to repatriate French citizens accused of joining jihadists in Iraq and Syria, something the government has steadfastly refused.

Le Monde newspaper said his appointment was as if Didier Raoult -- the controversial French doctor who backs the use of hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 -- had been named health minister.

But supporters say Dupond-Moretti's weight of personality means he can have a far greater impact than his mild-mannered predecessor, law professor Nicole Belloubet.

Dupond-Moretti, who has vowed to create a judiciary "closer to citizens," faces a tall in-tray at his new office in the plush Place Vendome in central Paris.

Pending reforms concern the appointment process for prosecutors and procedures for putting minors on trial, while Dupond-Moretti also wants to improve conditions in prisons and reduce inmate levels.

"Since Robert Badinter, no lawyer has been named justice minister," said Estellia Araez, head of the French lawyers' union SAF, referring to the hugely respected justice minister under president Francois Mitterrand who pushed through the abolition of the death penality.

"It bodes well that a colleague who has always defended freedoms has been named justice minister," she said.

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