Friday, December 05, 2008

Police abuses in France

The subject today is the abuse of power by French police and judges. Two lurid examples have made the headlines for different reasons. One involves a journalist and the other a recreational pilot. Since I am both, I of course feel extra indignation. Journalists do not usually get sympathy when they complain about mistreatment, but the tale of Vittorio de Filippis, a manager with Liberation, has caused an outcry. It tells you about the heavy-handed methods of a system which has extensive power to arrest and hold people.

Plainclothes officers hammered on de Filippis' door at 6.40 am last Friday. He was arrested in front of his two young sons and insulted. An officer called him "worse than garbage". He was taken in handcuffs to a holding cell and twice subjected to an intimate body search. He was questioned without access to a lawyer and released five hours later.

The police carried out their raid on the orders of Muriel Josie, an examining judge. De Filippis' alleged offence is that he was liable as publisher of Liberation for a defamatory comment left by a reader on its internet site. In France, when you sue for libel, the case is prosecuted as a criminal one. In this instance, the victim of the supposed libel, an internet businessman, has already lost two cases against the newspaper. In other words, a judge ordered a newspaper executive to be dragged from his home and abused over an internet comment. "I barely had time to reassure my son that I was not a crook and that this had to do with the newspaper," said de Filippis.

The behaviour of the judge and police stirred anger from most quarters over the weekend, including from President Sarkozy's UMP party. But today, Rachida Dati, the Justice Minister, said the police were carrying out standard procedure because de Filippis had ignored a summons to come to the judge's office.

As Laurent Joffrin, the Liberation Editor, says today, the point is not that a journalist was given a hard time, but that judges and police behave like this often. "The inquisitorial procedure confers considerable power on examining judges. Some abuse it, as Judge Josie does," says Joffrin. "Too many police officers display culpable brutality and a contemptuous attitude towards defendants, especially if they are poorer, less educated or foreigners." Anyone who has lived much in a French city can testify to truth of that remark about the police (not the Gendarmerie, who are more civil).

There has been a steep increase in judges exercising their right to hold people overnight or longer for questioning on minor offences -- with no contact with lawyers. The practice was condemned today by Serge Portelli, a senior Paris judge who is an official with the magistrate's union, a left-leaning body. "We are facing an uncontrolled... explosion of the use of the means of coercion that are at the disposal of the state," he said.


The other case, involving the pilot, was driven by an extra ingredient: media hysteria. It began on a Sunday afternoon in late September when Xavier Thiry, an engineer aged 37, was flying his wife and two friends back to Paris from a visit to the Loire valley. Thiry finished up in jail for 24 hours. He was treated as a potential terrorist and last week he stood trial on charges of endangering life.

Thiry was not paying enough attention that Sunday and his Cessna 172 strayed about 500 feet higher than he should have been in the strictly controlled airspace near Versailles, just south of the capital. You are not supposed to do that, but it happens.

Thiry had the bad luck to be in the same zone as a government jet that was bringing Francois Fillon, the Prime Minister, back from his Loire region home. The controllers alerted Fillon's pilots -- air force officers -- to the presence of the Cessna. They saw the other plane and delayed their descent, although the Cessna was never closer than a kilometre away and at a lower altitude. The two Air Force pilots later filed a report of an "airprox" -- a formality when a pilot believes another aircraft has come too close. About a hundred are made every year and a few dozen lead to disciplinary action by the aviation authority.

Normally Thiry would have received a letter. In this case, though, someone tipped off a news agency which reported that the Prime Minister had narrowly escaped disaster. All the media leaped in, reporting Fillon's supposed brush with doom, the violent "emergency manouevres" of his Falcon jet and other fiction. So the prosecutor at Versailles threw the book at the hapless private pilot. He was arrested and questioned for 24 hours as a criminal while his home and flying club were searched. He was banned from setting foot in aiports and he was rushed to trial in record time -- for an infraction that would never normally go to a court.

The verdict is to be announced in a couple of weeks. He will probably lose his licence and be fined. Unlike the journalist's case, there has been no outcry. The media thrive on fanning fears over air safety and non-specialist journalists usually get the aviation facts wrong. As a journalist, that point is always a salutory reminder of the difficulty of reporting a field which excites emotion and in which you do not have expertise.

Yes, these two cases are relatively small beer involving middle-class people. But they are still an illustration of the heavy-handed methods that seem to be increasingly deployed by the justice system. And a disclaimer to our anti-French-bashing monitors: I know similar things go on in many places, including the "Anglo-Saxon" world, but I write about France.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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