France gives a little over George Floyd

The following item dropped into my email in-box just after 8pm on Friday 5 June. It came via a newsletter that arrives every hour or so from Franceinfo, the Radio France equivalent of BBC Radio 5. Take a read.

Sur les sept personnes majeures déférées au parquet de Paris après leur arrestation mardi 2 juin, dans la soirée, en marge de la manifestation contre les violences policières à Paris, une a été condamnée en comparution immédiate, jeudi 4 juin, à huit mois de prison avec mandat de dépôt pour violences sur personne dépositaire de l’autorité publique, a appris franceinfo de source judiciaire.

Let’s translate that so readers, who may not understand the French with its legal terms, fully grasp what is being said.

Of the seven adult people sent before the Paris magistrates after their arrest on Tuesday 2 June, in the evening, on the fringes of the Paris demonstration against police violence, one has been condemned in comparution immédiate on Thursday 4 June, to eight months in jail with an order for immediate imprisonment, for violence against a person holding public authority, franceinfo has learnt from a judicial source.

Comparution immédiate literally means “immediate appearance”. In practice what can happen is exactly that. An individual is scooped off the streets and before they know it are before a magistrate hearing the evidence against them and delivering the verdict. In theory, they have the right to a lawyer. In this case, the term meant “as quickly as possible”. The unnamed individual kicked their heels in the commissariat or the court cells for nearly 48 hours before they got their chance to hear their sentence.

Damn statistics

In the context of COVID, these cases can be the very inverse of Lord Chief Justice Hewart’s remark a century ago that “it is not merely of some importance, but is of fundamental importance, that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.

Back in 2005 a French parliamentary inquiry headed that part of its report covering comparution immédiate: “A bad reputation not always merited”. Which is a mealy-mouthed way of saying that it often is. One lawyer’s description from 2018 intended to help those passing through the courts in this way, explained: “You have not been able to read your dossier . . . You have not been able to speak to those close to you, you have not been able to phone. You have been cut off from the world. You are wearing the same clothes as when you were arrested. No need to say that you have not been able to wash or make yourself presentable . . . You feel vulnerable.”

The parliamentary report noted that comparution immédiate “continues to provoke very negative reactions among the lawyers (we) met who judge it much more dangerous than CRPC” – French initials for the cases where the accused has pleaded guilty before appearing in court. “It is attacked as judicial case harvesting, serving to drive up the figures, leading to a standardised defence by young inexperienced lawyers [who] have little time to understand their brief (usually between 15 and 45 minutes).”

That “continues” has not lost its force fifteen years later. For the lawyer Michel Tubiana, the honorary president of the Ligue des droits de l’Homme, the French equivalent of Liberty, it remains a “very perverse procedure with little respect for justice. It is absolutely destructive of any rights for the accused.” As you might expect, he told me that, in his view, the prosecutors go for it “because it is good for their statistics”.

In the case concerned, what was the evidence brought against the individual? What was the supporting material that might confirm that evidence? Was there any film from one of the rarely used police body cameras? From static CCTV video recordings? Was there anything from witnesses other than that “person holding public authority”? Like the hundreds of Gilets jaunes who passed through comparution immédiate and into prison, they disappeared behind bars without the public knowing what they had actually done and on the say so of a police officer.

No prior announcement

But let us go back a bit. The Prefect, the government official in charge of police activity in each of France’s departments, had announced during the day on Tuesday that they were not authorising the evening protest in view of the health emergency under which gatherings of more than ten are banned. However, the Prefecture also claimed to journalists that not only had it received no prior announcement of the demo but that “the tone of the appeal to join the rally, shared on social networks, let one fear that there might be débordements (literally, overflowing or excesses) at a sensitive venue”.

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