All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Striking justice

An engraving of the Women's March on Versaille...Image via Wikipedia
Some time ago, friends brought their French architect and his wife over for lunch and the conversation turned to how each group, British and French, saw itself and how it thought it was seen by the other group. There were a few surprises for each party, here, but I don't think that attitudes were altered.

One of the points that the architect made was that the French, when roused to indignation, took to  the streets, conjuring up images in my irreverent mind of the Bastille being stormed by angry bus drivers led by a bare breasted woman waving a flag, while the British were seen as agreeing everything behind closed doors....oh for the days of beer and sandwiches at No, 10.

Well, like all stereotypes, it is useful for labelling a phenomenon without having to examine it. There are all sorts of assumptions lurking beneath....that the French are open about their disagreements, while the subtle British hide them under the carpets....that the French system allows and encourages public expression while its' British counterpart stifles discord....and the assumptions are as interesting as the construction of the stereotype.

A little reflection shows that the British do indeed march in the streets, mostly on matters of principle. Animal welfare, war, taxation...these bring people onto the streets  risking stand offs with the police, even though these days the politicians have tried to limit demonstrations too close to their cosy lair in Westminster.
They might be wise.....down the ages, foreign ambassadors have remarked on the propensity for violence of the English and I don't think much has changed.
One more General Election returning the same caste of boobies to power and I think that Chesterton's people might just stir from their beer. If they haven't all already emigrated.

When the French march, it is not usually a mass movement, but something organised by a group of unions with the inevitable students tagging along, the police being present to prevent kids from the immigrant suburbs doing likewise and attacking the expensive shops along the way. These kids, not being fully integrated into a society that rejects them, don't understand the nature of a demonstration or a march in France. It is not about smashing a rotten is demanding a better place for oneself within that society.
1968 is a long way in the past.

The latest demonstration takes place in Paris today. A wonderful gallimaufry of prison officers, probation officers, lawyers and judges protesting at the state of justice in France - as well they might.
The prison officers and probation officers are unhappy about the proposed closure of local prisons in favour of huge institutions which might well be run by private enterprise.
Judges are fed up with having to buy their own copies of the Codes - the basis of law in France - as the budget screws tighten yet further.
Lawyers are fed up with the reductions in legal aid.

Less parochially, some lawyers and judges are against the suppression of the post of the - relatively - independent investigating magistrate in favour of an enhanced role for government lawyers in deciding whether to bring prosecutions.  here.
Defence lawyers want reforms in the practice of police custody, to allow those detained the real assistance of their lawyers which is demanded by the European Convention of Human Rights and denied by most French jurisdictions. here
There are even a few calling for the entire scrapping of the basis of the French legal system and the adoption of the 'Anglo - Saxon' model. No, not Alfred handing down justice while burning the cakes, but the sort of thing we recognise in Common Law countries....where the defence has a fair crack at the prosecution case.
They can kiss goodbye to that even before they get their shoes dirty.

What will be the outcome of this march? To show that you are allowed to demonstrate in the streets of Paris. Nothing more, and that's a pity.
Particularly at this juncture when Sarkozy is intent on making a new establishment in his own image and on eliminating the little independence there is in the French legal system to enable him to do so.

Asking French friends, they are united in their despair at their system of justice, feeling that most of it is a charade.
The well connected stay well protected, so much so that the arrest of a couple of notaires in the south of France for widescale property fraud was regarded as unbelievable.
Whose toes had they trodden on?

Personally, I always thought that property fraud was what  some notaires aspired to, though I probably misjudge them, mistaking incompetence for intent.

In the days when I had holiday cottages, I was looking for a place to convert, and saw a likely prospect in a notaire's window.
I made an appointment to view, and met the notaire's nark at the property. It was super...big gardens back and front and not overlooked by anyone - a miracle in a French hamlet.
Then the nark said that the house at right angles to it was also for sale - was I interested?

No, I wasn't. I  knew that house. A friend and her sister had rented it at one point and while it was a nice house, it only had a courtyard and to get to it you had to use a right of way past the house of a complete nutter whose walls were festooned with 'No Parking' signs and whose car was usually parked in the right of way.

Further, I only wanted one house.

I made an offer on the house I wanted, and sat back to wait.
After two weeks, I telephoned the nark.
No, the sellers weren't interested.
O.K., I'll go up by two thousand.
No point. They won't accept.

After thinking  a while, I telephoned the friend who had lived in the second house.
Yes, she knew the owners. They lived on the other side of the hamlet. A nice couple. She would ring them.
She did, and we all got together in my friend's house over coffee and cake.
Wasn't my offer enough?
What offer?

As we continued, aperitifs replaced the coffee. This was serious.
The notaire's nark had not, at any point, relayed my offer to the sellers. On the contrary, having originally estimated the house himself, he had just told them that they were asking too much and should reduce their price. They were confused and starting to be annoyed. I was annoyed and puzzled. My friend had the answer.
I'll ring the owner of the second house.

She came round to join in the aperitifs. All was revealed.
She had been told by the notaire that he had a buyer for her house, but only if it could be sold with the one at right angles - the one I wanted - in order to be able to create a new exit to the road through the back garden to avoid the nutter next door.

My sellers protested loudly...they were to be shafted to make a favourable sale for her.
Oh no....the notaire had told her that they were on board, glad to be rid of the house.

A moment of quiet broken only by the clink of bottle on glass, and my friend said
Well, what are we to do? He's lied to both of you, and while - turning to her ex landlady -, I really sympathise with you, it's not fair to you - turning to the sellers of house one.
I made it clear that I did not want both houses, nor did I want to grant a right of way for a car over the garden.

The landlady came up with the estimation for the sale of both houses which made it clear that, with the new price proposed to the sellers of house one, they were indeed being royally shafted.
Would she make an adjustment with the sellers of house one to let the project proceed more equitably?

I offered to buy house one at the price I had originally proposed. The sellers accepted. The landlady left to ring the notaire.

His first reaction, caught out in sharp practice, was to attack. He tried to browbeat the sellers.
Their house was for sale with him...they were not allowed to make a deal without his involvement.
He might have got away with it if he had not telephoned five times in increasing states of fury, which prompted the sellers to check the mandate and to see that he had not been granted exclusivity.

Then he turned to me.
I had been introduced to the house by his nark, therefore I must pay him commission.
Well, under normal circumstances, I would have paid commission, but these were not normal circumstances. He had tried to shaft the sellers and he had not transmitted my offer.
He could boil his head.
He would take me to court.

When we all went to sign the compromis with another notaire, he had clearly heard of the ruckus
Maitre Plouc will have your guts. He wants his commission.
He can want. Are you going to do this compromis or not?
He was. Fees were involved.

Maitre Plouc carried on telephoning me, but was careful not to write any letters.
I asked friends what to do and they told me to complain to the departmental office of the Order of Notaires.
I did that.
Some weeks later I had a letter from the secretary of the Order, stating that my complaint was without foundation.
Signed .....Maitre Plouc...secretary.

He didn't take me to court, as it happened, but I was banned from his office.

Which saved me from the fate of an American couple who bought a house and land through him, only to discover that they had paid for two fields which did not belong to them.

Now, is this just another little misunderstanding by a foreigner in France?
Maitre Plouc was, after all, only trying to do a deal on behalf of a client.
Yes, indeed, and neatly shafting another client in the process.
The only control on his activities?
Other notaires, who, like the Barons of Runnymede, would understand.

I can't claim that things differ too much in the U.K. in this respect ...... experience with the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau of the Law Society and their equivalent wielders of the whitewash brush at the Financial Services Authority don't exactly leave you abounding in confidence, but at least the person you're complaining about doesn't sign the letter refusing to hear your complaint!

When you are inside a system, you become accustomed to its' little ways and things pass you by. You grumble about the inadequacies of the provision for the task you are to perform, not the task itself.
As an outsider to the French justice system, I read the blog of Maitre Eolas here with great interest - and not only on Six Nations weekends.
He is an insider, the man with the white hat with his own hobby horses to ride, but close reading of the posts and the comments thereon give an illuminating picture of how the general system works.

Overworked magistrates trying to do their best, other magistrates more intent on currying favour for promotion than anything else, the prosecution trying to micro manage cases while being micro managed in their turn by the Chancellery with its' eye ever on the media. Expulsion cases being initially reviewed for rejection by law interns, proposals to bring more and more cases under the sole jurisdiction of the is not a pretty picture.

Over that lunch with friends I had asked the architect how he thought foreigners categorised  the French justice system.
Brutal and incompetent, he replied.

We were all taken aback. For once, foreigners and natives shared the same vision.
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