France's legals bring courts to halt after Sarkozy takes swipe at judge

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The Independent Online

France's judicial system was brought to a virtual standstill yesterday as thousand of judges and lawyers went on strike to express their anger at President Nicolas Sarkozy for his strident criticisms of the courts. Thousands of judges and lawyers demonstrated outside the Palais de Justice in Paris, and in other French cities, in the culmination of days of protest that have meant only urgent cases are being processed.

The strike was called on 4 February by the judges' union, the day after Mr Sarkozy blamed judges and the police for the death of 18-year-old Laëtitia Perrais, whose body was discovered in a pond near Nantes in western France. The main suspect, Tony Meilhon, had 15 previous convictions.

"When we let an individual like that out of prison without making sure that he will be followed by a parole officer, the judiciary is at fault," Mr Sarkozy said during a visit to Nantes, outraging judges upset by a lack of resources.

The magistrates of the Nantes court decided on an immediate suspension of non-urgent business and nearly all tribunals across the country have joined them in solidarity.

Judges who viewed the Laëtitia case as the final straw have long been exercised about funding. When members of the judiciary in the town of Bobigny decided to join the strike on Tuesday, they pointed out that all seven of them 10,600 cases to deal with between them.

"We're the 37th country in Europe in terms of funding for the justice system," said lawyer Grégory Bensadoun in Paris. "It's unacceptable."

"There is a long tradition in France of a lack of respect for justice," said court of appeal judge Fabrice Vert at the Paris rally. "Politicans attack judges in the public media either because we are too soft on crime or because we are not. We are human beings before we are judges, and all judges in France are very sad about this horrible crime. We will not put up with being accused of being machines and of having no compassion."

It is not the first time Mr Sarkozy has fallen out with the justice system. In 2005, after the murder of Nelly Crémel by two men, one of whom was a repeat offender, Mr Sarkozy, who was then interior minister said the judge should pay for his mistake.

The following year, he blamed the magistrates' court in Bobigny after two riot police were assaulted. And when more investigation revealed that suspects in a 2004 paedophile trial in Outreau had been wrongly convicted, Mr Sarkozy again attacked the judge in the media. Mr Sarkozy's attacks have been viewed as a populist move, and opinion polls published yesterday suggested that nearly two thirds of French people support the strike.

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