April 20, 2024

French System Tints View of the Strauss-Kahn Case

PARIS — The sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which continues to crowd out much other news here, is becoming something of a civics lesson in American justice — one that has inspired both biting criticism and some respect.

Legal experts say much of the consternation here over what many consider rough treatment in the news media and the courts is rooted in a general unfamiliarity with an American justice system that differs profoundly — in procedure, tone and philosophy — from the French model.

“There is an aspect of pageantry that we don’t have in our country,” said Judge Marie-Blanche Régnier, who is national secretary of a French magistrates trade union.

While the American justice system has its origins in British common law and involves ordinary citizens at almost every level, the French judicial system is rooted in the Napoleonic Code and is largely conducted behind closed doors. Suspects are typically ushered into courthouses through discrete side entrances, out of view of the public.

State-appointed magistrates prosecute and pass judgment in most trials without the oversight of citizen jurors, who serve only in the most serious cases. In such cases, formal charges come — if they come — only after a lengthy inquest by an investigating judge, who collects evidence on behalf of both the prosecution and defense before determining if a trial is warranted.

And in further contrast to the American system, investigating magistrates are legally bound to secrecy during an inquest.

All too often, critics say, the French system allows cases against well-known people to go nowhere or result in reduced charges without explanation. “For the powerful,” Judge Régnier said, “there is a treatment that can be different.”

Because the magistrates are considered impartial investigators, and are tasked with seeking the truth without bias, the defense typically does not conduct a separate investigation.

Building their arguments primarily on evidence collected by investigating magistrates, and only rarely introducing significant evidence of their own, French lawyers seldom attack the credibility of witnesses or plaintiffs, a common tactic in American court cases.

“We’re going to see the man who could have been the embodiment of the French left obligated — because it’s the American judicial system that wants it — to crush this woman,” Jean-Dominique Merchet, a deputy editor at the weekly magazine Marianne, said on France Info radio. “It’s going to be terrifying.”

Much also has been made here of the 74-year sentence that Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who stepped down as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, could face if convicted on all counts. American audiences pay little heed to such numbers. But French law puts far stricter limits on sentencing, and discrepancies between maximum terms and sentences as they are handed down are often less drastic.

Noting that the Manhattan district attorney is elected, many French also see the influence of politics in the muscular approach taken toward Mr. Strauss-Kahn, accused by a hotel housekeeper of attacking her in his room.

The “deliberate destruction” of Mr. Strauss-Kahn would probably be a “very winning” electoral strategy, Robert Badinter, a Socialist senator and former justice minister, said on France Inter radio.

Bradley D. Simon, a New York defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said some American lawyers also disliked the “theatrics of the criminal justice system.”

But he rejected French assertions that Mr. Strauss-Kahn had been unfairly singled out. Rather, Mr. Simon said, he is being “treated as badly as everyone else.”

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly criticized the French judiciary as lacking independence.

Writing on his blog after Mr. Strauss-Kahn was arrested, the respected Paris magistrate Philippe Bilger praised the diligence of an American system that “does not hesitate to apprehend even the most emblematic personalities with lightning speed.”

In France, he said, such people “would have had the time to prepare their truth or their lie.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/world/europe/29france.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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