Justice in France


I HAVE been strongly impressed by the extraordinary coincidence, in one respect, between two recent French novels which have come into my hands within the last month : L’Arriviste (The Man Who Gets There), by one Félicien Champsaur, of whom I never happened to hear before, although this is not his first book; and Les Deux Vies, by the brothers Paul and Victor Margueritte, who have been somewhat favorably known, I believe, as collaborators, mainly in fiction, for a number of years. The books have little else in common, save perhaps a sort of all-pervading gloom unrelieved by a single ray of cheerfulness. Paul Barsac, the man who “ gets there ” (I can think of no other exact synonym for arriver in the sense in which it is used as the parent of arriviste — a pure neologism), is an advocate of uncommon ability and of lofty aspirations ; but he is poor and without a “ pull,” and because of those disadvantages is unable to make any substantial progress in his profession. He finally “ arrives ” by resorting to the amiable expedient of robbing the mistress of his dearest friend of a million francs, and then murdering her to cover up the robbery. His friend, being accused of the double crime, is successfully defended by Barsac, who, by his masterly conduct of the defense, insures his own reputation and fortune.

Messieurs Margueritte, on the other hand, tell the story of a mother and daughter, the former of whom, being unhappily married, submits to every sort of indignity to which a wife may be subjected, partly from an exaggerated respect for the world’s opinion, and partly because she believes such submission to be best for her daughter. The latter, in her turn, equally unhappy in her choice of a husband, refuses to submit to her fate, although she too has a little daughter ; and she attempts to obtain a divorce, to which, even under the peculiar French law, she is clearly entitled. After two or three years of harassing litigation, her suit is finally denied.

The first story is little more than a bitter diatribe against what is alleged to be the universal, unrelieved corruption of Parisian society.

Les Deux Vies is an arraignment of the tyranny of the laws governing marriage and divorce in France. A mismated wife seems to be in no better case in that country now than when George Sand wrote Indiana and Valentine, nearly three quarters of a century ago.

The striking coincidence between the two books consists in the openly contemptuous method in which the administration of justice in France is treated in both alike, although from a somewhat different standpoint. I am not now speaking of the legal procedure which obtains in that enlightened republic, and which presents such a strange anomaly to us who are accustomed to the procedure in English and American courts of justice. That is taken for granted by both authors. But M. Champsaur, without circumlocution or innuendo, boldly asserts that all prosecuting officers and judges (with no more exceptions than are necessary to prove the rule), owing their elevation sometimes to actual crime, and very frequently to influence due to powerful connections or to the basest truckling and fawning, are guided in their official conduct by unworthy motives, seldom, if ever, by the evidence, or by the abstract principles of justice.

In Les Deux Vies the magistrates who compose the tribunal before which the unhappy wife’s divorce suit drags its weary length along are represented as being susceptible to the influence brought to bear upon them by the husband’s connections in society and in political circles. M. Tracassier, the president of the tribunal, was “ incorruptible, but, like every man, open to influence.” The husband had an uncle in the Court of Cassation, a cousin in the Senate, etc., and M. Tracassier’s mind was insensibly poisoned by them before the case came before him in his magisterial capacity.

And so, although the husband’s infidelity was proved so conclusively that it could not be denied, a majority of the court, being determined to débouter the plaintiff, seized upon the pretext afforded by a pretended “ reconciliation,” which was based upon a most palpable trick on the part of the husband ; the law providing that even a momentary reconciliation works automatically, as it were, to defeat an application for divorce.

In the Court of Appeal to which the wife carried her cause, the prospect seemed a little brighter, mainly because the president of that court made it a rule to reverse M. Tracassier’s judgments “ whenever it was possible for him to do so ! ” But he died before the cause came before him, — although not before he had been “ seen ” in the interest of the appellant, — and the same influences which had defeated her in the court below prevailed with a majority of the remaining judges, one of whom, who had a wife and five children, yet “ protected ” an actress, had such a horror of divorce that he was invariably against granting one !

Imagine such a sweeping arraignment of the courts of any state in this country, to say nothing of the Federal courts, by a reputable writer! For the brothers Margueritte may certainly be so described, whether M. Champsaur is or is not anything more than a mere boulevardier (as to which I know nothing). What does it mean ? Is it a true bill ? or does public opinion in France differ so radically from our variety of that article as would seem to be the case if these charges are unfounded ?