The other day I observed the formal induction of the new intake of students at a prestigious college in Bordeaux. Of the 268 students in the hall, 195 of them – more than 72 per cent – were young women, who were about to begin a rigorous 30-month training programme to become judges in the École Nationale de Magistrature.
In France, all judges – including investigating magistrates, public prosecutors and judges who preside over criminal and civil courts – qualify from this one school. French judges are not promoted or transferred from the ranks of senior lawyers as they are in Britain. Judges are a distinct legal caste, which has for years been dominated by women. In fact, the 2014 intake at the Bordeaux school included an unusually high proportion of men. In past years, the proportion of women has sometimes exceeded 80 per cent. Almost 60 per cent of all judges in France are now women.
Why? There are two reasons. Clever young men prefer higher-paid professions; clever young women are attracted to the law, especially the judiciary, which offers working hours compatible with family life. Sexism in the legal system is, however, alive and well. More than 70 per cent of the chairmen of the most important courts, and 80 per cent of state prosecutors, are men.