OBITUARY:Jacques Isorni

There have always been lawyers in France whose fame has depended not only on their eloquence, but also on their pugnacity in defending an un- popular case and on their total commitment to their client. Alongside Fernand Labori, who defended Dreyfus, and Jacques Vergs, who defended the Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie, one must rank Jacques Isorni.

Isorni fought for Marshal Ptain in his trial in 1945, demanded his release from prison and for the rest of his life championed his memory. He pleaded in favour of de Gaulle's would-be assassin Colonel Bastien- Thiry, who was executed in 1963. He won the acquittal of a Polish workman in 1968, when public opinion was convinced that he was guilty of murdering a young girl.

Nothing suggested that Isorni would have a career so beset with drama, controversy and bitterness. Born in Paris in 1911, he was called to the Bar in 1931 and became Secretary of the Advocates Association of France. He was not particularly active politically, although he was a disciple of Barrs and an admirer of Maurras, collaborating with the nationalist paper L'Echo de Paris (along with a young student called Franois Mitterrand).

He was called up in 1939, with the rank of sergeant, and after the armistice he returned to his legal practice. There he defended many, including some who had been arrested by the Vichy authorities, Resistance workers and communists among them. But it was not until the trial of Robert Brasillach that he became famous. Isorni, along with many writers and intellectuals, organised a petition begging that this brilliant novelist and journalist, who had demanded alliance, not collaboration, with Germany, should be pardoned. Isorni put his case personally to General de Gaulle, but for reasons that remain obscure, the General refused to intervene and Brasillach was shot on 6 February 1945.

It was as a result of the sensation caused by this case that Isorni was invited to be one of the advocates defending Ptain in July and August 1945. Ptain was charged with committing crimes against the internal security of the state, and of having dealings with the enemy with a view to promoting their enterprises in conjunction with his own. Very soon Isorni was regarded as the most important of Ptain's advocates; Ptain referred to him as "my Messiah".

Whereas others chose to emphasise Ptain's servility as a way of excusing his conduct, Isorni chose to defend his policies, supporting the armistice and claiming that France had derived many material benefits from the Vichy regime. Isorni's concluding speech, delivered in what was said to be the most crowded court room that France had ever seen, reduced many of those listening to tears as he insisted that they must envisage the scene of the aged Marshal being guillotined. After de Gaulle had commuted the death sentence, Isorni pleaded unsuccessfully that Ptain should not remain a prisoner on the distant Ile d'Yeu, off the Brittany coast, for the rest of his life.

Isorni also defended a certain Yves Dautun, the godson of Franois Mitterrand's mother, who was given two sentences of 20 years for the work that he had done destroying British and American intelligence networks. When Mitterrand became a minister, Isorni asked him to intervene and get the sentences reduced. This Mitterrand did.

Isorni's reputation was made. He was a Ptainist and the friend of collaborators. But he was elected to Parliament, for the second section of the Seine department, in 1951 and in 1956. Unsurprisingly, he could not accept de Gaulle's return to power in 1958. As he put it, "the defender of Louis XVI cannot vote for Robespierre". He did not believe that the Fifth Republic was legal. He was opposed to abandoning French Algeria. His defence of Col Bastien-Thiry was, as he saw it, the opportunity to put de Gaulle on trial. Ptain the patriot would thus be shown alongside de Gaulle the opportunist. Unfortunately his attitude became so violent that he was disbarred for three years, and a pamphlet of his had to be withdrawn.

He much preferred Mitterrand to any Gaullist. In 1965 he urged his supporters to vote for Mitterrand in the second ballot of the Presidential election. "Mitterrand," he argued, "has never said a word against Ptain." In this respect, at least, the defender of Ptain was right.

Jacques Alfred Antoine Tibre Isorni, lawyer: born Paris 3 July 1911; died Paris 8 May 1995.

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