Sunday, 19 July 2009

Nicolas Sarkozy and the Seven Monks

Once upon a time (May 1996) in the mountains of Algeria, the heads of seven French Trappist monks were found. This sounds more like a nightmare rather than a fairytale and could indeed turn into a nightmare for the French President.

But how can a relatively small event in a North African country 13 years ago scupper Sarkozy's hopes for legal reform in the French Republic? At the time it was assumed jihadists in the form of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) executed the seven men but recent revelations suggest that they were killed as the result of a botched Algerian military operation. Meanwhile the Sarkozy reforms seek to remove the inquisitorial nature of the French legal system by getting rid of the independent investigating judges and replacing them with politically appointed state prosecutors.

At first one can see why many French legal academics are up in arms against this. The point is well summarised by the representative of the monk's families, Patrick Baudouin, who suggests "The intent of Sarkozy's plan is clear: to put investigations back under political control by eliminating the magistrate and putting prosecutors in charge". He goes on to advocate that "once an independent judge is allowed to investigate, the ability of the rich, the powerful and the state to keep the truth covered up is reduced to almost nothing."

However the system that Sarkozy wants to introduce is very similar to the more adversarial legal procedure seen here in the UK and across the Atlantic in America. Many would argue this allows cases to be investigated in more detail and gives both sides a chance to forcefully submit their argument before an independent judge. The success of such a system can be seen in nearly a thousand years of English legal history but at the same time it is hard not to support the outraged French lawyers and judges. Although the Napoleonic justice system may be in need of reform, it's promotion of independence represents one of the country's most cherished values.