Friday, February 4, 2011

Sarkozy and the Judicial System

Nicolas Sarkozy's relations with the judicial system have long been strained, but yesterday they neared the breaking point.

The immediate problem was the president's promise to punish those responsible for failing to prevent the murder and dismemberment of a young woman, Laetitia. The accused in the case, Tony Meilhon, is a multi-recidivist. That there were lapses in his parole supervision is undisputed. What is in dispute is the reason for the lapses. Sarkozy wants to blame individuals. Officials lower in the chain of command want to blame the system. France2 last night publicized letters from the lower echelons of the hierarchy to officials higher up, complaining of the chronic lack of funds and personnel for the supervision of ex-convicts on probation. Meilhon, despite his long record, was not classified as a dangerous sex offender and was therefore placed in a lower priority group by a bureaucracy that could not manage its case load. Magistrates, parole officers, and police have all joined in alleging that if anyone is culpable here, it is a government that failed to respond to an urgent and well-documented need.

In truth, this case is just one more in a long pattern of conflict. The punishment of criminals, and especially violent criminals and repeat offenders, has been an issue of predilection for Sarkozy. He seems to have concluded that this is one area in which people actually crave more government, particularly in the immediate aftermath of heinous crimes. What's more, each new episode offers the president an opportunity to play a role that he has perfected: at once compassionate and tough, deeply pained by the suffering of the victim's family but also profoundly angry, not so much at the criminal as at the supposedly feckless officers and magistrates who are, in his eyes, virtual co-conspirators. One had only to watch him on TV yesterday, his face contorted by this patented mixture of compassion and rage, his body language intended to convey disciplined fury, his eye glistening with righteous vengeance, to guess how much he relishes this role. It's a role that allows him to reach down from the Olympian heights, to touch ordinary people in the provinces, to convey emotion, and, yes, to shirk responsibility by pretending yet again that systemic failures can be fixed by going after a few scapegoats. has compiled a dossier on Sarkozy and the justice system. It's worth reading.