French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday called for a major reform of the judiciary, sparking a barrage of protests from critics who fear it could hamper investigations into France’s political elite.
In a New Year’s address to the Cour de Cassation, France’s highest court of appeal, Sarkozy said he wanted to scrap the post of investigating magistrate, a powerful, independent judge in charge of the most complex criminal cases.
Created 200 years ago under the Napoleonic code, the figure of the “juge d’instruction” is a pillar of the French justice system, once described by Honore de Balzac as the country’s “most powerful man.”
Under the French system, the magistrate works with police and prosecutors to direct criminal investigations, weighs the evidence and then decides whether or not to send a case to trial.
But in a wide-ranging speech on penal reform before top French magistrates, Sarkozy said he was in favor of scrapping the role entirely, replacing it with a judge who would oversee but no longer direct investigations.
State prosecutors, who answer to the justice minister, would be expected to take over criminal investigations if the change goes ahead — bringing the French justice system closer to that of the English-speaking world.
There have been repeated calls in France to rein in the extensive powers of investigating magistrates, most recently after the so-called Outreau pedophile affair, a judicial fiasco in which 13 innocent people spent years behind bars.
Singling out the youth and inexperience of the magistrate heading up the probe, who was 30 at the time, a parliamentary committee called for the creation of new safeguards — but argued against scrapping the role.
But Sarkozy insisted the change, to be finalized this year, was needed to bring the French justice system “into the 21st century.”
Magistrates, lawyers and the opposition have reacted angrily to the plans, with around 100 lawyers and investigating magistrates staging a protest rally outside the Cour de Cassation during Sarkozy’s speech.
Critics fear the state prosecution could be pressured into burying sensitive cases, unless steps are taken to boost its independence from the government.
“If he dares do this, without giving the prosecution back its independence, it will be an unprecedented attack on the balance of our institutions,” said Eva Joly, who worked in the 1990s to bring the Elf corruption scandal to trial.
Unions representing magistrates have accused Sarkozy of seeking revenge against independent judges, who have led far-reaching probes into the affairs of corrupt politicians and businessmen.
Socialist Party spokesman Benoit Hamon accused him of seeking to “put judges under direct political control,” while centrist leader Francois Bayrou called the plans “extremely shocking, dangerous.”
Lawmakers in Sarkozy’s right-wing camp have also warned any such change should be fully debated in parliament.
Investigating magistrates handle just 5 percent of all criminal cases in France, but they are often the most complex ones.
Sarkozy argued that it was impossible for one person to both build a case for trial and act as independent “arbiter.”
“A judge in charge of an investigation cannot reasonably also uphold the rights of the person facing charges,” he said.
He also called for steps to strengthen the powers of defence lawyers, and protect defendants from unfair imprisonment — saying he hoped to bring about “a true Habeas Corpus a la francaise.”