Chapter 9: A Nation of Shoplifters
My court date was a long way off, but I couldn’t escape a nauseous cocktail of guilt and self-loathing. I felt like a condemned man living under house arrest at my Poodleland flat.
When I ventured outside to walk Oscar and Leo, the familiar sound of droning two-tone Parisian police sirens made me panic – I wondered if they were coming for me. When I spotted a police car, I feared they would stop and handcuff me for some undisclosed crime. When standing in front of my students in lecture halls, I suspected they all knew I was up on criminal charges and facing serious porridge. When I came across the French homeless man with his aged black poodle Boulie, I almost envied his uncomplicated existence. I couldn’t shake the shame.
Oscar and Leo were the main beneficiaries of my guilt. I was on my best behaviour with them for weeks. Our walks to the Champ de Mars grew longer as I ceded to their every whim, letting them drag me wherever they wanted to go. Sometimes we ended up near the Passy bridge. On the Café Tourville terrace I treated them to the warm frothy milk that came with my café crème. My anxiety about their health – surely they had suffered from the trauma of our joint incarceration – led me to the veterinarian in rue Saint-Dominique to have their blood and stool samples examined. Unexpectedly, the vet recommended a teeth-cleaning – or détartrage – for both of them, a costly procedure that involved putting them under anaesthesia. I reluctantly agreed, convinced that the procedure would prevent gum disease. When I went to fetch the dogs later that day, Oscar was perky and alert but Leo was still under the effects of the anaesthesia and stumbled comically around the flat like a legless drunk.
Not having a driver’s permit had an immediate impact on the routines and rhythm of my daily life. It was now impossible for me to travel down to Fontainebleau. Taking the train was too complicated with two bichons. So I bit the bullet and gave my landlord notice on the Fontainebleau flat. I could see the Little Corsican and his Coiffeuse taking out the bunting to celebrate. Robespierre the cat would now have the run of the entire garden. I would miss Madame de Bordas and my neighbour Olivier. And most of all, of course, I’d miss the Sunday morning markets.
I tried to regard the loss of my driver’s permit as a blessing. Perhaps it was time I became a regular user of the Paris bike-hire scheme, “Vélib”. The word Vélib is a portmanteau word for vélo (bicycle) and liberté (freedom). I rather liked the word freedom, especially in my current circumstances. Vélibs are the French version of London’s Boris bikes – though Parisians like to point out that London pinched the idea from Paris. There are two Vélib rental stations within two blocks of my place in Poodleland. You can take a bike for about two euros a day, or buy an annual subscription for about 40 euros. All you need is a credit card and you’re off. Unless you have two small white dogs with you. Which is why my principal means of urban transport became the bus. I could take Oscar and Leo on the Paris buses so long as I carried them, one in each arm. Needless to say, most of the time we have been confined to our familiar precincts in Poodleland.
It was pointless for me to even own a car. I was paying exorbitant monthly fees for the Peugeot to sit in the underground car park near Invalides. After my first parking bill it didn’t take me long to start scratching around for a buyer. My old Sciences Po classmate Paul Okel, who after his degree had stayed in Paris and married a French woman, came to the rescue. Paul took the beat-up Peugeot off my hands for a nominal price that was virtually a gift. I was frankly relieved to get rid of it. The car was now too associated with my guilt and shame.
Most of all, I needed a lawyer. For that I turned again to Paul, who was an international business lawyer and member of the bar in Paris and California. I now had first-hand experience with France’s detention system, but I had no knowledge of the French judicial system. Paul had an extensive network of contacts in Paris legal circles and knew the French legal system inside-out.
“You won’t be out of the woods for eighteen months – and it’s going to cost you,” he said.
It was always nice to start off with good news.
Paul recommended a young lawyer who he said I would find efficient and pleasant. I discovered what he meant when I met with Vanessa Attal at her law offices in the posh Grand Boulevards section of Paris. She was an attractive young woman, probably not yet thirty, with dark brown hair and black eyes. When we met my first thought was: this girl looks like one of my students. Preliminary chit-chat revealed that she was Jewish, which I had already guessed. I mentioned that my ancestry included a Jewish great-grandmother from Northern Ireland called Rachel Stein. Our tenuous Jewish connection established, we got down to the business of my humiliating predicament.
“It should be fairly straightforward,” she said, seated across from me in a large book-lined boardroom. “You have lost your driver’s permit and so accepting a court-ordered suspension is without consequence. Your permit is gone. The important matter is the punitive sentence. A fine will almost certainly be imposed. It will be subject to negotiation with the Procureur – it could be only a few hundred euros, but it could be much higher. The problem, as I see it, is the aggravation of the outrage charge. You verbally insulted a police officer. The court might decide to take it seriously. And that could complicate things. I can’t give you any assurances on that.”
I explained that my “fuck you” outburst had been triggered by a policeman’s manu militari apprehension of my two bichons, Oscar and Leo.
“I was like a mother bear fighting for her cubs,” I said, smiling.
“That could be a mitigating factor,” she replied, smiling back.
“Look, here they are,” I said, pulling out my iPhone and holding up a photo of Oscar and Leo on the screen. It was a picture taken in Fontainebleau of the dogs perched on the edge of my bed, their heads cocked sideways as they looked at the camera.
“Adorable!” said Vanessa.
“Perhaps we should bring them into the courtroom,” I said. “Exhibit A, two small white dogs. In might be a first in the annals of French justice.”
“Along with ‘fuck you’ as language insulting a police officer,” she said.
Vanessa said I wouldn’t likely be summoned to the Tribunal de Grande Instance for another three or four months and there could be further procedural delays. The point of our meeting was to establish contact – and, of course, for me to hand over a signed cheque for 1,500 euros to engage the goodwill of her esteemed law firm. It seemed like very little compared to the public humiliation of the impending court hearing.
One morning my doorbell rang when I wasn’t expecting anyone. My first thought was that it might be the bourgeois lady from the “Amis du 7e arrondissement” petitioning me again about the bars and restaurants going up along the Seine.
I squinted through the peephole in the door. It was a postman with a registered letter. The French are obsessed with registered letters, which rarely bring good news. In France registered mail is the official way to harass creditors, threaten lawsuits, demand payment of fines and taxes, issue summonses, and sack employees. The postman presented me with a thin white envelope labelled “Prefecture de Police” and solemnly asked for a signature. The sight of the words “Prefecture de Police” produced a twinge of panic in my nervous system.
After pacing and thinking for a few seconds, I ripped open the letter. It was a convocation à visite médicale, ordering me in grave tones to appear at the police station in the 18th arrondissement at 8:45 a.m. on a specified date for a medical exam. I was to bring with me four passport-sized photographs (“all scanned, computer-copied or photos that are too small will be refused”), an identity card (all French citizens have one and are obliged to carry it on their person at all times), the sum of 24.40 euros (in cash only), and a self-addressed stamped letter (format 11 x 22 cm only). I was moreover required to bring the results of a urine test taken in the previous four weeks to test for drugs. If necessary, a psychological examination would determine my aptitude to drive a motor vehicle.
I was startled, confused, and slightly outraged. My first impulse was to call Vanessa Attal and ask her what this was all about. But after reading the summons a second and third time, I realised that this “medical exam” business was totally unrelated to my court appearance. The Prefecture de Police bureaucracy had been pointlessly busy churning out paper. How nice of them. They didn’t seem to know that my permit had been invalidated. It would take more than a drug-free urine sample to get it back. Vanessa Attal had been quite clear on this point: I would have to take the code de la route test, an ordeal widely dreaded in France because it was virtually impossible to pass the first time.
I sat down and drafted a letter to the Prefecture de Police, courteously requesting that they please double-check on the status of people in my situation before harassing us with summonses for urine samples and psychological tests.
My letter had no impact. A few weeks later, the postman came again with another registered letter – a second summons to come to the Prefecture de Police with passport photos and a urine sample.
This time, I just ignored it.
As the weeks passed my feelings of shame and paranoia gradually attenuated as I slipped back into the familiar rituals of my daily life in Poodleland.
My return to normalcy was helped by the self-delusional tricks the mind plays on itself when one has to self-justify, and deny if necessary, in order to recuperate the emotional resources to carry on. I soon arrived at the conclusion that I was practically innocent of the charges against me.
My crime, after all, was only a minor driving offence. Yes, I’d blown over the limit, but I hadn’t been speeding or driving recklessly. I was merely driving the short distance back to my place after a perfectly civilised dinner party. When the judge learnt two small white dogs were in the back seat of my car, the absurdity of the charges against me would become patently obvious. After nearly twenty-four hours locked up in a cold and dark jail cell, I was the victim.
Another trick my mind played was favourable comparisons of my own conduct with the chronic bad behaviour of the French in general. Napoleon famously remarked that England is a “nation of shopkeepers”. It was, of course, not meant as a compliment. After nearly three decades in the Fifth Republic, I had formulated a rejoinder to that Napoleonic put-down: France is a “nation of shoplifters”. By shoplifters I don’t mean the French are compulsive kleptomaniacs who pilfer and thieve in their local shops. I mean that in France there is general acceptance of rule-breaking – from petty incivilities to calculated crimes – that is perpetrated cynically, guiltlessly, and frequently with impunity.
Crime prevention in France can best be summed up as “penny wise, pound foolish”. There are thousands of micro rules to interdict just about every impulse in French society, but the most shocking crimes like bank heists and serial murders often go unsolved and unpunished.
To experience the harassment of France’s culture of micro-regulations, a walk through the Jardin du Luxembourg will do. A similar park in Britain or America – like Kensington Gardens in London – is a place where people feel free to stroll at their leisure. They are spaces where liberty prevails. On hot summer days, dogs chase squirrels and children splash in the ponds. Contrast these public spaces to parks in Paris: closed, forbidding, heavily policed. In the Jardin du Luxembourg, no dogs are allowed – except in the small section near the boulevard Saint-Michel. And only on a leash. The public are invited to stroll on the grounds, but strict limits are imposed on their liberty. Foreigners visiting the Jardin du Luxembourg are frequently baffled by these restrictions. On a sunny day groups of tourists find a place on the grass, spread out a blanket, and settle in for a picnic. But within thirty seconds, sometimes even sooner, a French policeman wearing a képi comes charging at them, blasting on his whistle like a cop in a French comedy, to chase them off the grass. At first the foreigners look perplexed. You can see them thinking, “But this is a park”. No matter, they are told to hop it. And grudgingly, they gather up their things and quietly move on.
The French live with these petty rules their entire lives. No wonder they have become so adept at flouting them. Sometimes the rebellion takes the form of selfish incivility. France’s national sport of queue-jumping is a good example. The spectacle of queue-jumping – an impulse that is particularly grating to the Anglo-Saxon sensibility – cuts across all classes and walks of life in France. And it goes well beyond banal turnstile-jumping in the Parisian Métro. In France queue-jumpers are everywhere – at the cinema, in the shops, at the train station, everywhere you line up for something.
I first encountered queue-jumping when lining up at Parisian cinemas nearly thirty years ago. At first I was puzzled, then intrigued, then infuriated as I witnessed selfish people thrusting themselves to the front of the queue. Invariably someone in the back would shout “la queue!…la queue!” to upbraid the selfish vulgarians. But to no effect. People jump queues to maximise personal convenience at the expense of others. The French don’t seem to give a damn what others think. And most get away with it.
I recall reading an article in The Times about a particularly notable example of queue-jumping in Paris. The victim was the Times writer who had been waiting in line at a Left Bank taxi stand. He looked up, astonished, to see the celebrated French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy appear from nowhere and blithely push his way to the front of the queue. Lévy was not alone. He was accompanied by the famous Italian intellectual Umberto Eco. This is how the Times writer recalled the incident: “France’s celebrity philosopher emerged from a nearby restaurant arm in arm with Umberto Eco. At that moment, a taxi, the first for at least 20 minutes, drew up: Lévy and his companion simply strolled to the head of the queue and climbed into it. As a Briton brought up to respect the supreme sanctity of a queue, I was outraged. But no one else voiced any objection to this egregious act of queue jumping.” A French-Italian queue-jumping combo – there can be no worse.
You can witness this same spectacle in Parisian supermarkets every day. I have occasionally seen grandmotherly ladies feigning absent-mindedness as they slip furtively to the front of the line. They get away with it, of course, because nobody wants to tell off an old lady. One day when queuing in my local Carrefour supermarket in Poodleland, an elegant middle-aged French woman clutching a prune yoghurt and a large cucumber cut in front of me with a feminine daring that, at first blush, seemed beyond reproach. I quickly inspected this lady with a glancing look as she made a delicate little pirouette to turn away from my reaction. There could be no doubt about it: she was queue-jumping and she knew it.
I was faced with a dilemma: what do I say? I had only seconds to decide. My Anglo-Saxon temperament got the better of me.
“Madame, il y a la queue,” I pointed out neutrally, gently reminding her that there was a line and so would she kindly move to the back of it.
She looked up at me with a bright smile and sparkling eyes.
“Un peu de galanterie, Monsieur!” she protested coquettishly.
She was putting me in my place. I should have known it was my fault. My problem was that I lacked gallantry. Needless to say, I protested no further. And she continued to glide ahead of me towards the cash register, clutching her oversized cucumber.
I like to say that the French have good manners and bad behaviour. Many put the irritating incivilities of the French down to the famous “Système D” ethos in France. Not a single person in France does not know what Système D means. Its meaning is hard to translate in English. The “D” comes from “débrouillard”, a term used to describe people armed with the cleverness, and cunning if necessary, to get through any ordeal or extricate themselves from any tight spot. Some argue that the “D” stands for the more vulgar term “démmerder”, which means to get out of the shit. Whatever the precise origins of the term, Système D describes the sneaky little things the French do – fiddle, cheat, swindle – to get around the rules and laws that make life’s daily travails bloody inconvenient.
That the French are so skilled at these stratagems should not be surprising in a society notorious for its strict codes and rigid laws. I have seen weekly magazines on newsstands boasting on their covers a compendium of useful “Système D” tricks – a sort of How To guide of petty criminality. In France, everyone wants in on the latest tricks. And there are many. If you have friends at the police commissariat, you don’t have to worry about your parking fines – they can be erased, sometimes for a small bribe. If you are tight with your doctor, you can get a letter for two weeks of sick leave under the flimsiest pretext. If you are a Parisian yuppie living in a gentrified loft in the working-class arrondissement near the Canal Saint-Martin, you can count on a friend at the Paris city hall to authorise your child for enrolment in an exclusive school in the posh 16th arrondissement so your kids can mix with schoolmates of their own social class. These little schemes are so common in French society that they have been assimilated into normal reflexes. No one seems particularly bothered.
At the more organised end of the scale of French rule-breaking, the stakes are much more serious. One of my favourite television programmes in France is Faites entrer l’accusé, which recounts the country’s most sordid murders and the police investigations that followed them. The recurring theme of Faites entrer l’accusé is the incompetence of the French police, who are portrayed as blundering Inspector Clouseau characters who stumble their way through investigations ignoring or dismissing the most blatant evidence of guilt. French court bureaucrats are just as hopeless. Serial rapists and murderers often are released from prison on procedural grounds. In one particularly shocking case, the French police had a vicious serial killer called Guy George in custody with his matching DNA on file. The evidence was never examined, however, and George – the “Beast of the Bastille – was released. Once liberated, he raped and murdered more young women in Paris. He had killed seven young women before he was finally locked up.
Tax evasion is a crime that appears to be generally accepted, and widely practised, in the Fifth Republic. I actually became an accessory to tax fraud shortly after moving to Paris in the 1980s. I’d spent more than a month living out of suitcase in a hotel room in rue Jacob and was desperate to find a flat before the school year at Sciences Po. Finally I came across an advert about a two-room apartment in rue de Lille not far from the school. The flat was going to for 4,500 francs a month, which in the 1980s was an eye-popping sum for a university student to disburse on digs. But I was desperate and in a hurry, so I took the flat. My landlady, it turned out, was an aristocratic lady, the Comtesse de la Baume, a fine-featured, smartly dressed, and dignified woman who looked to be about sixty. To finalise our rental agreement, Madame la de Baume summoned me to her luxurious apartments in the rue de Grenelle near Invalides, only a stone’s throw from where I live today in Poodleland. At the time, finding myself in that upper-crust part of Paris was rather like stepping into the pages of Proust.
Despite her exalted rank, the Comtesse de la Baume seemed unusually focused on the finer points of French tax law.
“You know I want to be paid in cash,” she said. “With these horrible people in government in France, we’ll all soon be ruined!”
The Socialists were in power in France at the time, so I had little difficulty in grasping who she meant by “these horrible people”.
Paying my rent every month turned into an unbelievable spectacle that was almost comical. Madame de la Baume came round at an appointed hour in her little Austin and parked on the street near the Musée d’Orsay. I emerged from my building with a wad of cash discreetly concealed in a cream envelope. I climbed into her tiny car and, after a few platitudes, handed her the envelope. Madame de la Baume was unembarrassed by the indelicate nature of our profitable association. She took the cash from me, pulled out the money, and began peeling off the bills like a seasoned croupier in a Riviera casino.
The Comtesse de la Baume, a member of the property-owning French aristocracy that had seen better days, was now like many of her countrymen a skilful Système D practitioner. I quickly got good at playing the game too. Four months later when I was sick of paying an exorbitant sum to rent a dark little flat facing a busy courtyard where workman were now coming and going every day, I decided to look after my own interests. At Christmas I did a runner, leaving the place without notice or forwarding address. Madame de la Baume kept my 9,000 franc deposit. Thanks to my piston with Professor Yves Mény, I moved into a much bigger, brighter and better flat down the road at 19 rue des Saints-Pères.
Buying property in France requires a wholly different kind of expertise in the tacit codes of Système D. When an apartment or house is for sale in France, both sides of the transaction have a mutual interest in a scheme to screw the government and avoid taxation. I had long wondered why so many house prices in France were never listed explicitly, or remained vaguely stated. This is especially the case at the higher end of the market, where the price of real estate is listed as “nous consulter”. In other words, ask the estate agent privately. It took me some time to realise that there was a Système D machination behind this curious lack of precision. In France, buyers of real estate often pay two prices: the first one is the officially listed and taxable price; the second is the real price, much higher, paid to the seller. But the combine, as this nefarious business is called in French, is beneficial to both parties. Let’s say a house is worth 1 million euros. The seller offers the property to the buyer for a tacit price of 900,000 euros, thus a 10% discount. In return for this sweetheart deal, the buyer agrees to “pay” an officially taxable price of 750,000 euros. The remaining 150,000 euros is paid under the table. The French state is told that the house sold for 750,000 euros. The seller and buyer are both winners in this scam. The loser is France’s national treasury – in short, French taxpayers.
Perhaps the most outlandish example of France’s national passion for rule-breaking concerns the tiny ortolan songbird that migrates between Europe and Africa. For centuries the ortolan has been considered a delicacy by French gourmets. The tiny bird was captured alive and put in a dark box where it was force-fed with millet. When fattened up, the bird was drowned in Armagnac and roasted whole. It was then devoured, bones and all, in a bizarre gastronomic ceremony during which the diner covered his head with a linen napkin while diving in and swallowing the bird’s tiny carcass. Some believed the purpose of the napkin was to preserve the precious aromas; others claimed it was to “hide from God” for indulging in such a barbaric ritual.
Some 50,000 ortolans were killed in France every year to keep these contestable gastronomic rituals going. Then in 1999 the European Union banned the hunting of ortolans because the bird was considered an endangered species. But the French government, which has a spotty record for enforcing its own laws, never enforced the European ban protecting the ortolan. French gastronomes kept cloaking themselves with napkins and diving into the grotesque feast. One of these gourmands was none other than François Mitterrand.
At the very end of his life when he was dying of cancer, Mitterrand made a final visit to his beloved Landes region in south-western France. The trip became known as his Last Supper. Surrounded by some thirty friends and family, Mitterrand was pale and weak, unable to move without suffering great pain. Only the sight of plates of oysters and foie gras enlivened his spirits and brought him back into the world of the living. It is recorded that Mitterrand slurped down three dozen oysters and devoured a capon before the pièce de résistance was brought out. It was a roasted ortolan, forbidden by law from being served on French tables. Mitterrand was France’s head of state, the personal embodiment of law and order. But to hell with it. The dying old man would get his last wish. Mitterrand covered his bony head with a napkin and swallowed two ortolans whole. It’s said he never put another piece of food in his mouth. Mitterrand went to his grave with an unpunished crime as his final act.
His successor Jacques Chirac wasn’t so lucky. After leaving office in 2007, Chirac was relentlessly pursued in the courts for alleged crimes of political corruption, including diverting public funds. When Chirac was finally sentenced in court to a two-year suspended sentence, the French were divided. Some believed it was too late to convict an old man who was out of office and slipping into senility. Others believed the French justice system had long been too indulgent with Chirac. The suspended sentence meant that Chirac never served a day in jail.
For Chirac the dog-lover, the biggest blow came in the early summer of 2009 when he was in the English Channel resort town of Deauville accompanied by his bichon Sumette. One day Chirac took Sumette with him to the Deauville casino. But the doormen, looking down at the small white dog, stiffly refused Chirac entry. Sorry Monsieur le President, no dogs allowed. Chirac and Sumette turned and left.
Chirac’s embarrassment with Sumette demonstrated once again that, in France, serious laws can be broken with tacit impunity but petty rules will invariably be enforced with unflinching resolve.
It took months for a date to be set for my court appearance. And the timing could not have been worse.
Just as I was mentally preparing for the big day, a shocking scandal hit the French headlines. The Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn – known in France as “DSK” – had been arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York City. DSK, a former French finance minister, had been leading the opinion polls in the run-up to the French presidential election the following year. He was the Socialist Party’s providential man to beat Nicolas Sarkozy. Now suddenly his political career was in tatters. DSK was a disgraced man.
There was one point, however, on which the French sympathised with DSK. Many in France were horrified by the way the American judicial system treated him, forcing him to do the “perp walk” before the television cameras while journalists waited like jackals outside the New York police station. The French were also offended as they watched news reports about the anti-French bigotry in the New York tabloids, whose splashy headlines featured gems such as “Chez Perv”, “Frog Legs It!”, “French Whine!” and “Pépé Le Pew”. Many in France believed the DSK scandal was a stitch-up – that he had been framed. Most believed DSK was being lynched by the American judicial system.
Perhaps I was being paranoid, but it struck me as rather bad timing for an Anglo-Saxon just about to get dragged through the French courts. Perhaps the French judge would exact revenge on behalf of France by severely punishing me. I made a mental note to tell Vanessa Attal to point out in court that I was not American.
On the morning of my court date, I left Oscar and Leo in the flat with a babysitter, one of my American University students called Brooke. I decided go to the Palais de Justice on foot, taking a long walk to clear my head with fresh air. I walked along the Seine, cutting through the Tuileries before crossing over at the Pont Neuf to the slender Ile de la Cité where the Palais de Justice is located not far from Notre Dame. I finally arrived in front of the Palais de Justice’s cour d’honneur, I looked up in awe at the neo-classical portico behind a massive black and gold gate. It was the same stock image the French see on the television news in reports about the trials of noteworthy criminals.
Today it was me on trial. I was terrified. Passing through the gate, I showed my summons to two policemen who motioned me toward the turnstiles. I was almost expecting a pack of television cameras to swoop down on me. To my great relief, the first person who came into view was Vanessa Attal. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs in her black robes with two long white ribbons falling from the collar.
“Are you ready?” she said.
“I’m in your hands,” I said.
I wasn’t too worried about the outcome. Vanessa had reassured me that the only uncertainty was the amount of the fine. The “fuck you” matter was a joker in the deck, but Vanessa didn’t seem particularly troubled by it. She was convinced that I possessed enough social capital, as a professor at Sciences Po, for her to prevail on the court to show clemency towards my regrettable situation.
I followed Vanessa up the staircase and into an immense foyer where on a large balustrade stood allegorical statues representing Justice, Prudence, Abundance and Strength. The high-lofted corridors were musty and vaguely dilapidated. We finally arrived at the door of the Substitut du Procureur, who in France is a sort of assistant prosecutor. Vanessa had explained that one does not go directly into the courtroom in France. An initial meeting with the Substitut du Procureur is required in a procedure called reconnaissance préalable de culpabilité. This means simply that the accused admits guilt prior to appearing before a judge. Once culpability is no longer in dispute, the Substitut du Procureur proposes a peine – or punishment – that is negotiated with the accused’s lawyer. The judge in court receives notice of this negotiated punishment, and if it seems reasonable the sentence is accepted. In French legal language, the court’s acceptance of the negotiated punishment is called a homologation of the agreement between the Procureur and accused.
“Do judges always rubber-stamp these pre-negotiated sentences?” I asked Vanessa.
“Almost always – I’d say ninety-nine per cent of the time,” she replied. “It would be rare indeed for a judge to reject an agreed sentence.”
I was beginning to feel relaxed. Vanessa prepped me for my interview with the Substitut du Procureur. Nothing too stressful. The charges against me would be read out and a sentence would be proposed after some discussion with her as my lawyer. I was to sit there, smile, say as little as possible, and let her do the talking.
We proceeded through the wide double doorway, waved on by a bulkily-clad policewoman at the entrance. To my consternation we found ourselves in a vast and busy room teaming with police officers and court bureaucrats who were rushing about as criminals were herded in and out, sometimes in handcuffs. It was like walking into a human abattoir. I felt like a nervous schoolboy who had just arrived at a borstal for delinquent children and was waiting my turn while older, more rough-edged boys were being taken into the office for a good caning.
We took a seat on a bench along the wall as I watched this spectacle with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. I shot Vanessa a look of vague terror. She smiled back.
Finally we were shown into the small back office of the Substitut du Procureur. I was immediately surprised, and considerably relieved, to see a casually dressed woman in her forties gulping a coffee and apologising for making us wait. She was painfully thin, almost frail, with curly black hair falling down on a milky visage with warm expressive eyes. I read on the plaque on her desk that her name was Florence Lifchitz. Her dishevelled appearance was a marked contrast to the black legal robes draping the voluptuous figure of my young lawyer Vanessa Attal.
Madame Lifchitz began scanning my dossier, murmuring the main points out loud in a way that clearly was meant to show a favourable disposition toward my particular case.
“You are a professor at Sciences Po?” she asked, seeking confirmation of the facts on my rap sheet.
I sensed that Vanessa seated next to me was satisfied with the way things were working out. Madame Lifchitz appeared more than willing to look upon my confession with a good dose of indulgence. She did however seize on the slightly embarrassing matter of my “fuck you” outrage directed at the arresting officer.
“What happened there?” she asked.
“It was an emotional reaction,” I explained. “The policeman seized my two small dogs in the back seat of my car. I protested angrily.”
“I see,” she said, looking up at me and holding eye contact.
I refrained from asking her if she would like to see photos of Oscar and Leo on my iPhone.
After short pause, Madame Lifchitz proposed a peine that my lawyer instantly understood to be extraordinarily lenient: a 300 euro fine (with 100 euros avec sursis) and six months suspension of my driver’s permit. Vanessa knew that the permit suspension was irrelevant due to its invalidation for lack of points. The only material issue was the fine. The sursis of 100 euros was a French judicial tradition of indulgence, the equivalent of a suspended sentence. It meant, in effect, that I would have to pay only 200 euros.
There was one small matter outstanding: erasing my criminal record. Vanessa had assured me that, given my status as a Sciences Po professor, we could reasonably request that this most embarrassing matter be wiped clean from my record. In France one’s casier judiciaire is a bureaucratic document that follows you for your entire life. When you are offered a job, you must forward your casier judiciaire to the prospective employer to comply with standard procedure. When I was taken on at the American University of Paris, the school’s HR department requested my casier judiciaire along with other documents such as my British passport. These bureaucratic hassles are frustrating, and can have regrettable consequences. If your criminal record is not vierge – or “virgin”– your chances of getting the job offer are greatly reduced, if not entirely nullified. Hence my interest in having these charges erased from my records. In formal French legal language, it’s called non-inscription – simply, that my conviction not be inscribed on my criminal record. It would remain virgin.
“And the non-inscription?” said Vanessa.
“Ah yes,” said Madame Lifchitz. “Can I see a professional identity card please?”
I reached into my jacket for my wallet, pulled out my Sciences Po professor card and handed it over the desk.
“We have a photocopy too,” added Vanessa.
Madame Lifchitz inspected the card quickly and handed it back to me. “No problem, we can agree to the non-inscription. I can fully appreciate that Monsieur Fraser wishes to avoid unpleasant surprises in the future.”
When we were back in the musty Palais de Justice corridors, Vanessa was visibly elated by how things were proceeding. There was still our appearance before a judge after lunch, but homologation was a pure formality. She asked me to meet her back in the cour d’honneur at two o’clock. I walked away feeling a Sisyphus-like weight lifting from my shoulders.
After lunch the small courtroom was bursting to capacity with a motley assemblage representing a wide range of criminal activity – all nervously waiting their turn before a middle-aged woman judge who looked to be in a very bad mood. She was a thin redhead, perhaps fifty, not unattractive despite her intimidating glowers, testy remarks, and direct rebukes. As Vanessa and I gingerly took our seats at the back of the courtroom, the accused standing before the judge was a teenaged boy charged with smashing street lamps in the 18th arrondissement. His father was standing next to his sheepish offspring, explaining to the court that his normally well-behaved boy had been drunk on the night of the crime. The father promised to pay all damages to the City of Paris. While the judge was giving due consideration to these explanations, murmured chatter and crumpling of paper bags could be heard coming from the public seats.
“What is that I hear?” snapped the judge. The room fell into a tense silence. “People are not to eat in this court. Stop it at once, or get out immediately.”
I was transfixed by this judge, fascinated by her quick mind and grim mood. My lawyer Vanessa didn’t share my impression.
“This is not a good sign,” she whispered.
When my name was called, we got to our feet and advanced respectfully before the court. The judge scarcely deigned to look at me, preferring to listen to the court clerk reading the charges against me. It was stated that I was a university professor and of British nationality. My principal crime, according to the formal charges, was driving sous l’empire of alcohol. The imperial choice of words struck me as characteristically French.
Everything seemed to be going according to standard procedure, until the clerk read out the second outrage charge, providing the detail that I had uttered “fuck you” to the arresting officer.
The judge squinted and began reading the statement on her own sheet. Suddenly she looked unnerved.
“Where is the translation of this term?” she said. “This is not a French term. How can I be expected to make a determination on this matter without a proper translation? Why is this even coming before this court?”
Stunned, Vanessa stepped forward and respectfully indicated to the court that everybody knew what “fuck you” meant and consequently there was no practical need for a formal translation. This elicited a burst of loud laughter from the back of the courtroom. But the “fuck you” hilarity only exacerbated the judge’s irritation.
“Sorry,” she said, “I can’t make a ruling on this, there will be no homologation. This must be sent back and brought forward again in proper form.”
“C’est aberrant!” protested Vanessa.
“No,” replied the judge, putting Vanessa in her place. “I won’t have any discussion of this matter here.”
The courtroom fell silent. The judge turned to the clerk as if we no longer existed. Vanessa looked at me with a gobsmacked expression. I now understood why being a lawyer in France is a less prestigious profession than in America and Britain. In France lawyers aren’t allowed to do much talking in court. A few seconds later we were leaving the courtroom in a state of confused disbelief. The people in the audience followed our exit with supportive smiles, as if thanking us for the good fun. I even caught site of one dude pumping his fist in solidarity and whispering “fuck you”.
Outside the courtroom, Vanessa informed me that my entire case was back to square one. The proposed sentence of six months suspension, a fine of 200 euros and a virgin casier judiciaire had been invalidated. We had to start all over again. I was furious, but too confused to express my indignation.
Perhaps I should have known that there would be a Système D solution to my predicament. Vanessa stepped away for a few minutes to make a call on her mobile phone. A few minutes later she returned with some good news, though remained cautiously optimistic. She said that, given the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the “fuck you” translation, she could probably prevail on the Procureur to look upon my situation with bienveillance. In certain special cases, she said, it’s possible to obtain a private audience with a magistrate for sentencing. It was a special dispensation not accorded liberally, noted Vanessa, but she believed that my social status, professional prestige, and the general respectability of my character would be sufficient to secure this privilege.
And so my life resumed in legal limbo. I returned to my lectures, the daily walks with Oscar and Leo, and the occasional sighting of Benson the mongrel star of the 7th arrondissement. I also made a brief trip to London where I found myself in the Mayfair Hotel at the same time as the film star George Clooney and pop singer Elton John. I was there to give a talk on social media to a group of businessmen in one of the basement theatres. To my astonishment, Elton John was in another basement theatre that he had rented to watch a high-definition broadcast of a U2 concert. Or so I was told. I never bumped into him and never saw George Clooney. Their presence in my midst was verified only by the enormous phalanx of paparazzi photographers lined up across the road in front of the Sainsbury on the corner of Berkeley Street. When I exited the hotel on my way to do a trolley dash in the nearby Boots, the photographers questioned me about the two superstars inside, but regrettably I had no information to share.
Back in Paris, I received a call on my mobile from Vanessa. From her voice I knew it was good news. It was indeed. She said that she’d spoken with some people in the Procureur’s office and they shared her perplexity about the procedure. Consequently, I was being accorded an audience with a magistrate for sentencing. It would not take place in a courtroom, but in the private offices of the magistrate. I couldn’t believe my luck.
On the appointed day, I met Vanessa – yet again – in the cour d’honneur of the Palais de Justice but this time she directed me down a series of corridors leading to an eerily quiet part of the vast judicial complex that in medieval times had been the private residence of French kings. Finally we arrived in a small office that looked as if it hadn’t been dusted in three centuries. A dowdy woman emerged to greet us. Vanessa stated her name and we were asked to take a seat in the deafening silence. Eventually a small man came out, greeted us, and asked us to follow him down a long hallway. At first I thought this diminutive chap was going to lead us into the august offices of the magistrate. But no, he was the magistrate. He was a fastidious little man, bespectacled, with fussy hand movements and tendency to squint when he looked up at me. His large desk, perched in the centre of a spacious Second Empire office, had probably been sitting on the same spot in the room since the 1850s.
I sensed instantly that, as Vanessa had advised me, I was not there to speak, but to listen. We both sat before the large desk behind which the magistrate was hunched over my file. Then he looked up and launched into a monologue about the charges against me, the conditions in which I had been originally sentenced, and the reasons for his consenting to this most extraordinary audience. I nodded deferentially to each of his points.
When the moment of sentencing arrived, the magistrate turned to me and fixed me with a look of painful remonstrance.
“Monsieur Fraser, you are a docteur en sciences politiques and a professor at Sciences Po. I want to make it plain that I do not consider these facts to be a mitigating circumstance. I regard them as an aggravating circumstance. You are someone of outstanding stature in this country, a role model for many, and it therefore is not to be expected that someone of your quality and character should be coming before me with such charges against him.”
A little stunned, I agreed with a vague nod and whispered contrition. Vanessa seated next to me remained silent.
Finally the sentence was handed down. The suspension of my permit was maintained at six months, but the fine was increased to 600 euros. We got to our feet and quietly left the magistrate’s office. I was so relieved that this sordid business was finally over that I was almost jubilant.
When I returned home that afternoon, I felt reborn. For the first time in many months, I could awake in the morning in the knowledge that the French judicial system was not hanging over me like a Damoclean sword. I took Oscar and Leo on the 63 bus and we had a lovely walk around the section of the Jardin du Luxembourg where dogs are allowed. I watched with amusement as the park’s képi-topped policemen blasted on their whistles and chased tourists off the lawns. My legal troubles in France were finally over.
Or so I thought. Two months later, when my life in Paris was back to normal, I received an unexpected email from Vanessa. It was worded with cautious legalese that I instantly recognised as bad news. After reading her email two or three times, I finally grasped what she was conveying: my casier judiciaire had not been wiped clean. By some unforeseen administrative cock-up, they’d forgotten to comply with the request to erase my criminal record. Consequently, my convictions were still on my record. It was not vierge.
I called Vanessa at once to ask for an explanation. She was expecting my call and was ready with a well-rehearsed explanation of how the predicament could be resolved. I could make an application to the courts to have the matter of my casier judiciaire examined by a judge. It involved a lot of bureaucratic paperwork, including the drafting of a request in formal legal language, and it would be months before I heard from the courts. Vanessa said however that she was certain, given my status as a Sciences Po professor, that my request would be accepted and a favourable decision would be rendered. But it would mean that I’d have to show up in a courtroom again.
“I realise it’s a hassle, and I apologise,” she said.
“It looks like I have no choice,” I replied. “I can’t march through the rest of my life in France with a criminal record. I’m not old enough not to care.”
I asked Vanessa how much her services would cost to steer me through this ultimate stage of my legal ordeals in France. She cited 1,000 euros as her fee for drafting the letter, more if she accompanied me to court.
“But you could do all this yourself,” she added. “It’s just paperwork and bureaucracy. If you wish, you can draft the letter and I’ll correct it at no charge. But after that, I’m afraid you’re on your own.”
I accepted her offer. I had lived in France long enough to understand the rules of Système D. After this experience with the eccentricities of the French judicial system, I was sufficiently battle-ready to get through this final ordeal on my own.
Matthew Fraser’s Blog