The French Are Unimpressed by American Justice

As DSK heads to trial, the French media run explainers--and takedowns

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If the DSK trial is giving the French a taste of American justice, the discriminating French palate seems unimpressed. The initial furor over Strauss-Kahn's "perp walk" photos probably got the matter off on the wrong foot, but since then French papers have run explainer after explainer on the American legal system. It's not that all of the introductions and side-by-side comparisons are negative, but there are plenty hints of passive-aggressive disapproval. And that's before you even get to the bile-filled takedowns from the op-ed sections. Have a look at how French papers are teaching their readers about the American justice system--and how some contributors are registering their profound opposition.

The Explainers: Law & Order Teaches the French About the Law, Too

It's a longstanding joke that Americans mostly get their ideas about the inner workings of justice system from TV shows: why should the French be any different? "It's another logic, another judiciary system, a universe where strategy is as important as meticulous knowledge of legal rules," Les EchosValerie de Senneville explains in one of a multitude of French-American legal system comparisons in the French media (and one of the nicer ones). Emphasis added, below:

Contrary to French penal procedure where evidence is totally free ... in the States, evidence, at the time of the trial, is very restricted by the 'rules of evidence.' Those who follow American TV series have heard this 'objection, your Honor,' because it falls to the judge to determine which evidence is admissible. With a base rule: that which is judged in the trial is not the character or the reputation of the accused or the victim, but the the facts and those alone. ... What happened on May 15 in suite 2806 in the hotel Sofitel in Manhattan, before the hour of 12:28? The evidence can only be related to these facts.

Meanwhile, François Koch of L'Express does a side-by-side comparison: "How would French justice have dealt with DSK?" His numbered list, somewhat redacted, includes an item at the end sure to rile Americans proud of judicial independence. We've highlighted it below:

1. No photos ...
2. Another type of police custody. DSK would have been questioned by the police, but under other conditions.  In France, the right to remain silent is less well guaranteed. ... A lawyer, in France, is not supposed to intervene, while American lawyers do not remain inactive.
3. A less free police. DSK would find himself faced with police offers much more subject to their double hierarchy, that of the Justice department and that of the Interior department. In the U.S., [the police's] space in which to manoeuver is large ...
4. A less accusatory public prosecutor ....
5. No prison without a preliminary investigation  ...
6. An inquest both for convicting and acquittal [referring to the judge's twin responsibilities in the French system]
7. An independent judge ... The American judges think of the impact of their decision on public opinion, particularly if they wish to be reeelected. The supreme court judge that liberated DSK Thursday made a less electoralist [that's the literal translation. More loosely: "political"] decision than the one that sent him behind bars.

The Takedowns: American System Is Inferior

The notion of an "independent judge" mentioned above, it turns out, comes up again and again in French criticisms of the American system. For example, take Sorbonne law professor Roseline Letteron's introduction to her withering takedown:

For several months the American model of penal procedure has been presented to us as an incontestable improvement. After the Outreau affair, vigorous criticisms overwhelmed the "inquisitory" French procedure, resting on a judge who ... searches for the elements of scientific/natural evidence to prove the guilt, but also, and above all, the innocence of the accused.

Letteron's op-ed in Le Monde is also noteworthy for mentioning that, in the immediate reaction to DSK's arrest, America's apparent "egalitarianism ... met with a favorable echo in our country, and some immediately saluted the superiority of a penal system which didn't hesitate to  imprison the powerful in order to assure the protection of the most humble victims." But Letteron strongly feels that the DSK affair provides a test case upon which to prove that the American system is not, in fact, thus superior. She points out first of all that the two systems do not rest on similar principles, as is often assumed, attacking the notion that the presumption of innocence is as fundamental a part of American legal tradition as the French, in which it actually appears in Article 9 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man. Read this section. It seems what really set Letteron off, as with many, was the "perp walk":

European standards are simply more demanding than the guarantees of American law which give us, in the DSK affair, an egalitarian facade. Certainly it's praiseworthy to show the world that a victim's word will be heard, no matter her social status. But is it likewise necessary to throw the accused as food to public opinion, at the precise moment when he may not yet benefit from the rights of defense?

It's Faux-Egalitarianism!

That's a refrain not just in Letteron's piece. Attorney Daniel Soulez Larivière also writes in Le Monde that "the quasi-religious egalitarian dogma, become republican, is an elegant screen for perpetuating a real deception. No, equality is a myth." Harsh words. Here's his explanation: "A profound inequality between the 'small' and the 'big' clearly plays to the disadvantage of the 'big,' who has the notion and the means to flee [here's the DSK bail issue again, and we'll come back to it later]. ... It's clear that a perp walk (cuffs on the hands) for a small-time [drug] dealer doesn't interest anyone, while the same parade for DSK interests a million television and Internet spectators throughout the world."

It's Repressive, and These Lawyers Haven't Read Political Philosophy

"The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair in France is giving rise to a debate on the procedural particulars of the American penal system. What renders this system unique is its 'repressiveness,'" declares Mugambi Jouet, jurist on the penal court for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague, also in Le Monde (are you detecting a trend, here?). He trashes the U.S. incarceration rate, the concept of the plea bargain (because of fees, "few of the accused will risk going all the way to trial"), and even American legal professionals' hobbies and education: "The politicians, prosecutors, and judges pay little attention to the sociopolitical and humanitarian consequences of such a repressive system. ... Many of them have no interest in criminology or the human and social sciences."

Americans Weigh In in French Media

This could placate or irritate the French, but the L'Express writers putting the idea forth keep their own opinions hidden. The suggestion is that the Roman Polanski saga will be affecting DSK. With regard to DSK being preliminarily denied bail, Pauline Tissot writes, "why fear a flight?" Tissot notes that L'Express correspondent Philippe Coste asked this question of an American lawyer who said "the problem is France ... Your country doesn't extradite nationals. If DSK found a way to get to Paris,  he would never return. Look at Polanski."

Then observe the opinion of Christopher Kutz, visiting professor at Sciences Po Paris and a regularly faculty member at Berkeley. He wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times that bridged the extremist American and French positions a bit, finding flaws with both. That said, he seemed to dedicate a bit more time to taking apart the American position, and Le Monde reprinted the piece, translated. Here's an excerpt from the original--the translation has a slightly different, perhaps edgier, tone, but the substance is the same. It's a good closing to our survey:

Reactions to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn spectacle have been starkly different on the two sides of the Atlantic, and self-congratulations abound. ... Each nation would do better to look through the eyes of the other. ... On their side, the French can point to a system of criminal justice that avoids a media circus legitimized in the name of "transparency" and that, by and large, treats even the convicted with an appreciation of their humanity lacking in the overcrowded, increasingly privatized warehouses of dying souls that are U.S. prisons. ...

The humiliating perp walk, the media circus, the charade of the citizen's bulwark of grand jury indictment (90% of prosecution targets are indicted), the trial contest between teams of lawyers — this is how the telegenic surface of the American criminal justice system provides an outlet for resentment and masks mass injustice, not to mention delivering prurient titillation. Let us not confuse a liberally dispersed degradation with an homage to equality. ... [But on the other hand:] The trivialization of [DSK's] past thuggish behavior as "seduction" and "loving women" marks the dirty if open secret of French politics: an elite tolerance for corruption and misbehavior that is nearly as much an outlier among developed nations as the American taste for prison farms as social policy.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.