Judges throughout France vowed to cancel court hearings and hold demonstrations this week after President Nicolas Sarkozy sparked outrage with comments blaming the judicial system for a murder.
The unprecedented strike follows a blistering speech by the President in which he said "grave dysfunctions" by judges and police had led to the murder of a 20-year-old woman in western France last month.
Mr Sarkozy referred to the suspect in the case, who was freed from jail a year ago on a separate matter, as the "presumed guilty man" – provoking a storm of rage by civil rights campaigners. One human rights activist suggested yesterday that Mr Sarkozy, himself a lawyer, should resign for "deliberately trampling" on the constitutional guarantee of presumption of innocence.
It is not the first time the President has seized on a news story to attack the alleged laxity of judges. This time, he also infuriated two of the largest police unions by criticising the force. Mr Sarkozy's comments shattered his efforts since the new year to appear more aloof and presidential before he runs for re-election next year.
In a speech in Orleans, he spoke of "serious faults" in the handling of the case of Toni Meilhon, 31, who was released from prison a year ago after a series of convictions for violence. Mr Meilhon has been formally accused – but not yet charged – with the murder of Laetitia Perrais at Pornic, near Nantes, last month. Mr Sarkozy said: "When you allow out of prison an individual like the presumed guilty man in this case without ensuring that he is followed by a probation officer, that is a serious fault."
He also blamed judges and police officers for other "grave dysfunctions", which allowed Mr Meilhon to be released and his movements not checked.
Judges will cancel some hearings in protest this week. There are also to be demonstrations in Nantes and Strasbourg. Mathieu Bonduelle,the secretary general of the judges' union, the Syndicat de la Magistrature, said the President had created an "atmosphere of vague menace. He is talking of faults and sanctions before the [judicial inspectorate] has completed its report on this case."
Mr Bonduelle said responsibility, if any, rested with cuts to the legal system that meant judges were burdened by too many cases, and there were insufficient probation officers. He said the judges would be refusing to hear some cases in protest but "essential" trials and those which involved people in detention would go ahead.