Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The facade: encountering the Palais de Justice

This experience is going to take a while to digest. So please bear with me, and don't expect today's post to bring you the definitive and complete reckoning of yesterday's courtroom events and the larger meaning I draw from them, although that will come. This is more of an impressionistic first take.

First, some photos of the Palais de Justice, where the trial was held. Here's the impressive gold-gilded imperial facade, even more imposing in person:

There isn't a courthouse in the United States built in this particular style. That's because there isn't a courthouse in the US that could possibly have had this building's aristocratic legacy. Furthermore, the American conception of the role of a courthouse, and the legal system it contains and facilitates, is quite different, as well.

You may think I'm speaking of architectural esthetics, but I'm not. I'm talking about how architecture can reflect an entire ethos, and symbolize in concrete (get it, concrete?) form the philosophy behind the building itself. And in this case the Palais de Justice seems an almost perfect paradigm of French justice, even though it was originally built for another purpose.

So we have a wonderful and intricate facade that attempts to impress with its splendor and glory (in this case, the aristocratic glory of yesteryear). Carved above the main entrance is the rallying cry of the French Revolution (minus the original "or death" addendum):

Yesterday we entered though a side door after a long wait in the line to have our bags searched. That meant we were a bit late, and so we began racing through the building too fast for me to even think to take photos of the inside of the building.

But I should have. Because despite my mad dash around the courthouse (a maze in which there was no direction, no order, no guide to where the numbered rooms might be, and no one interested in answering directions or expediting matters, as well as no one caring if we wandered in and out of offices and random judges' chambers) I could still register with shock that the place was a shambles, in disrepair and disorder.

Some of the disorder was the result of the fact that they are renovating. But some of it was just the worn-out shabbiness of an interior that's been neglected way too long.

Who were this "we" of which I speak? Myself and my interpreter, a young woman who'd graciously offered to translate the proceedings for me by whispering the English into my ear as events unfolded. She was the one who kept asking directions and getting them, as we circled inside the huge structure, raced up and down staircases and down hallways, opened doors and closed them, and came back to our starting point beside a broken x-ray machine that had taken up residence in the hall.

When we finally entered the courtroom it was small, with unattractive but ancient wood paneling and uncomfortable benches. The set-up told a tale, as well. There are three robed judges in a French court, almost never a jury (fraternite, my foot!). The lawyers and the witnesses address them, standing and facing the court with their backs to the proletariat spectators.

A gilded exterior and a hollow heart; that's my impression of French justice after this trial (more about that, of course, later). And I discovered, while doing a little research, that this building has another history, one that reflects especially ironically on the failed promise of the slogan carved outside its portals.

The Palais was long the residence of French monarchs and aristocrats (and it's appropriate, as you will see, because present-day French justice is loaded with respect and recognition of the newer aristocrats, those movers and shakers of influence and power).

But the Palais has an even darker (and to me, more relevant) past. It was the seat of "justice" during the Reign of Terror, that post-revolutionary phase that featured purges of nearly everyone who had offended anyone, without much benefit of trial or the ability to mount a defense:

Try to envision a sharply dressed, prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, who would arrive daily at 8:00 to his offices located in towers. He would have his daily conference with Sanson, a.k.a. Monsieur de Paris, the executioner. Together they would make up the hit-list du jour, and order the corresponding number of wagons.

The accused would then meet before the prosecutor, plead their cause, and await the verdict. Although a goodly number were acquitted or given lesser sentences, over two thousand were condemned to the "national razor".

Despite the efficiency, Robespierre, the leader of the revolutionary government, became increasingly impatient and prodded Fouquier-Tinville to pick up the pace. To do so, a few formalities were dropped such as providing for defense. Soon, sentence was pronounced when the prisoner appeared in court.

The French no longer behead people--in fact, capital punishment is a definite no-no. And of course they don't pronounce sentence when the prisoner arrives; the sentence for yesterday's trial, for example, won't officially be handed down till Nov 28. And, of course, this defendant had a lawyer to plead his case, and even if he is found guilty the fine will be very light.

But make no mistake about it: this appears to have been a show trial nevertheless. Everything about the demeanor of the judges and the plaintiff's lawyer conveyed that thought: the lack of seriousness in the courtroom, the boredom and inattention of the judges, the paucity of evidence (or even interest in what meager evidence there was), the sloppy disregard of detail, the almost palpable absence of a spirit of inquiry.

Unlike the Reign of Terror, the facade of a fair system remains. But, at least to my eyes and ears, the interior of that system--the heart of the matter, which is the dispensation of justice--is shabby, faded, and dysfunctional.

I say "dysfunctional," but I suppose judgment on that score would depend on what is perceived as the function of the system. If the goal is to defend liberty (freedom of speech, for example), all seems lost: "abandon hope, all who enter here." Likewise, if the goal is equality.

If the goal, however, is to preserve the status and reputation of those with influence and power--the mandarins of France--then all is well. The facade is intact; on with the show, vive le république!

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