Picture the greatest French criminal barrister of his generation with the physique and cantankerousness of Rumpole-of-the-Bailey and the media-strutting ‘blokishness’ of Nigel Farage. Just imagine this 59-year-old son of an Italian cleaning-lady, great orator, defender of all-comers – including in his own words ‘the gypsy who has just disembowelled an old lady to steal her 40 euros’ – as one of the most outspoken and fiercest critics of France’s highly politicised and insulated caste of judges and examining magistrates. Meet then, the new French minister of justice.
Emmanuel Macron’s much-heralded reshuffle has been a damp squib, save for the stunning appointment of Éric Dupond-Moretti, tribune of the plebs to Macron’s Caesar. Incredulity has not been so widespread since François Mitterrand, in the twilight of a declining presidency in 1992, splashed the headlines with the appointment of the popular, but highly controversial ‘businessman’ and football club chairman, Bernard Tapie, as minister for cities.
Astonishment, but also fear. And none more so than among France’s overtly political judges. Within hours of Dupond-Moretti’s appointment the president of one of the judges trade unions (yes, they have such things!) declared: ‘Appointing such a divisive personality who so despises judges, is a declaration of war on the bench’.
But, Macron knows only too well, in France – far more than in Britain – judges are unpopular with police and the public for their perceived leniency and left-leaning politics. Public opinion has not forgotten the 2013 revelation of the so-called mur des cons – the ‘wall of twats’ – in one judge trade union office pinned with photos of prominent right-wing politicians, such as former president of the republic Nicolas Sarkozy and his justice minister, and leaders of victim support groups.
Macron’s ‘disruptive’ appointment of Dupond-Moretti is thus an olive branch to France’s beleaguered police forces – under fire for alleged brutality during the yellow vest movement and pension reform demonstrations, as well as hints from the interior minister, no less, of their institutional racism, a remark that cost him his job in the reshuffle.
The new prime minister, Jean Castex, and his new interior minister have begun their mandates with highly publicised and symbolic visits to police on the ground. With under two years to the presidentials, the appointment also plays well to France’s right-wing parties and right-wing voters. And more immediately – with social and labour unrest predicted by Macron himself for autumn – the loyalty and support of police and security forces will be essential.
Dupond-Moretti as minister of justice, though, heralds far more than symbols. His public statements on abolishing France’s élite national school of judges (École Nationale de la Magistrature) is a policy Macron has already broached in his Dominic Cummings-like zeal to reform not only France’s civil service, but also its recruitment.
French recruitment of judges is highly competitive, but begins as soon as they emerge from law school. They rarely serve as barristers or solicitors; immediately enlisted into the cloistered world of the career judge or examining magistrate having had no experience of client defence. Dupond-Moretti is determined to bring them into the real world, to improve their impartiality and independence from the executive.
And of this he has first-hand experience. For he and other senior barristers allegedly had their phones tapped as part of a recent investigation into the alleged misdemeanours of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. On appointment yesterday, he formally withdrew his official complaint against the parquet général, the prosecuting arm of French justice. But he has them in his sights. The managed leaks of investigations into politicians – habitually of the right as elections approach – by prosecution judges in league with journalists and in contravention of the much abused rule of secrecy of investigation and presumption of innocence, is also likely to be of interest to him.
So the new justice minister’s inaugural speech carried the pointed comment that he was ‘not at war with anyone’, while stating his intention to keep what was good in the justice system and expunge the bad. The elite magistrature is fearful of what those reforms might entail from this popular, politically incorrect, cigar-smoking, red-meat encouraging critic of the ‘dangerous’ Me Too movement.
Ironically, keeping the executive at arms length from justice will be his first test. For France’s new interior minister, Gérard Darmanin, is facing a rape allegation, while the justice ministry’s investigation into the bugging of Dupond-Moretti’s lawyer colleagues will be placed on his desk in September. Will Macron’s French Rumpole turn out to be a ‘disruption’ too far?