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Chirac bombshell for French justice

Within the next few days, President Jacques Chirac will appoint a committee to examine ways of overturning part of a French justice system unchanged, in its broad shape and principles, for over 1,000 years.

The committee will be asked to consider whether the state prosecution service - the parquet - should be freed from the interference and patronage of the central government. In terms of French judicial history, this is a startlingly radical idea: like tearing down a wing of Notre Dame cathedral and replacing it with a modern office block.

Mr Chirac announced before Christmas that he believed the system, or at least one part of it, had had its day. Later, in one of his many New Year's declarations, he said the "legitimacy" of the present arrangement was open to doubt. He would personally appoint a committee before the end of this month to examine whether the prosecution service, now under the direct control of the justice ministry, should be set free. At the same time, he said, action must be taken to re-establish in France the much-trampled legal principle of "innocent until proven guilty".

On the surface, this was President Chirac, "Le Bulldozeur", at his radical and reformist best. Although he and the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, are often accused of fudging and tinkering, they have, in the space of less than two years, drawn up an impressive hit-list of national institutions and sacred cows, including the Franc; non- membership of the military wing of Nato; military service; the welfare system; the pension system and the health service.

None of these reforms has yet been fully carried out. Parliamentary elections are only just over a year away. Why should President Chirac abruptly add the judicial system to the political burden?

His announcement has drawn a suspicious and cynical response from his political opponents, parts of the press and from some senior figures in the legal system itself. Why, they asked, was Mr Chirac appointing the committee of inquiry personally and not, as he originally promised, the justice minister, Jacques Toubon? Mr Chirac's sudden interest in judicial reform, they suggest, had little to do with public disquiet with slow and uncertain justice at the grass-roots level, as the President claimed. It had much more to do with the score or more of criminal investigations now in progress targeting Mr Chirac's own close political cronies in the Gaullist RPR party and in the Paris Town Hall.

The investigations concern illegal party fundraising and direct personal enrichment. They are being conducted, not by the parquet, but by examining magistrates or juges d'instruction, who are already independent of the government. The distinction - and rivalry - between the two lies at the heart of the system which Mr Chirac wants to rebuild.

In essence, a criminal investigation in France starts with the police and parquet and goes through a juge d'instruction before reaching other juges in the court itself. The system gives great freedom to the investigating magistrates but almost all the resources to the police and parquet, which may co-operate with the investigating juge or may not. It is alleged - by, amongst others, the juges d'instructions themselves - that political pressure has been exerted on the parquet to impede the investigation of the President's friends.

On the surface, it is difficult to see how freeing the prosecution service from ministerial control would help the President or his allies - rather the opposite. It would make it harder for the government to place obstacles in the path of a campaigning judge.

But the President's critics credit him with greater subtlety than that. They say the reform committee is a shot across the bows of the investigating judges. If the prosecution service were to be freed from political control, the next logical step could be to declare independent, examining judges superfluous and abolish them.