PARIS — American crime dramas "Law and Order," "NYPD Blue," and reruns of "The Untouchables" are taking a toll in France. According to pollsters, most French now think that a judge in a courtroom should be addressed as "Your Honor" - it's "Mr. President" in France. In addition, many French now routinely demand to see a warrant when police want to search their homes. (Police are not required to obtain a warrant in France.)
"It's a cultural catastrophe! French citizens don't even understand their own legal system anymore," says a top French official.
That's one reason French President Jacques Chirac launched a broad reform of France's legal system this week.
"The way justice is carried out and lived by its citizens is at the heart of any democracy. The situation [in France] is not satisfactory, and the French feel it directly in daily life," Mr. Chirac said in his live televised address on Jan. 20. The number of court cases continues to increase, while the means to cope with them have stagnated. Citizens need a simpler, more responsive process that they can understand, he added.
Another goal of the reform is to cope with the upsurge in corruption investigations, which have compromised all major political parties in France since the late 1980s and are now rattling the doors of the president's Rally for the Republic Party.
Critics charge that RPR officials have used political clout to delay or derail investigations into alleged illicit party funding and abuse of office.
Politicians and top businessmen caught up in high-profile investigations also claim that leaks to the press have made a mockery of their presumption of innocence.
The French president took note of both criticisms in his evening address Jan. 20: "Suspicions remain about the independence of magistrates from political authorities. Fundamental human rights are sometimes ignored."
"The time has come to set a great ambition for our justice system: reform its principles, modernize its methods, and adapt it to our times," he said.
French legal scholars welcomed plans to reform the system. Breaking the link between judges and politics will create checks and balances on the the power of the French state that do not now exist, jurists say.
"Judges guarantee rights in Anglo-Saxon cultures, but in France the protector of individual rights has always been the state," says Antoine Garapon, secretary-general of the Paris-based Institute for Judicial Studies.
"The legal system here has been viewed as just another state bureaucracy, such as hospitals or the postal service. These reforms will bring France into line with other Western countries," he adds.
While Anglo-Saxon legal systems feature procedural guarantees, such as rules of evidence, cross-examination, and the right to a prompt and speedy trial, the French system has relied on the goodwill of judges, who both investigate and decide the case.
French judges are also under the direct political control of the Ministry of Justice. The justice minister, a top political appointee, can direct a prosecutor to take up an investigation or, in effect, to bury one.
Since the justice minister is also in charge of judicial nominations and promotions, there is also a subtle pressure for judges to fall into what critics call a "culture of submission."
"[Justice Minister Jacques] Toubon has interfered to delay or block cases involving the RPR, but the real threat to judicial independence is more subtle. Judges on sensitive cases know that their careers are on the line, unless they do what is expected of them. To get ahead in the judicial hierarchy, you have to keep in line with the political establishment," says Catherine Vannier, vice president of an association of left-wing judges.
Chirac did not explain how the commission on reform should resolve this issue. The 21-member commission, chaired by appeals court Judge Pierre Truche, is expected to complete its recommendations by July 15. The commission will work "in complete freedom," Chirac promised.
Analysts say that yielding control over judges could be a difficult process. "It will be hard for the government to give up control of the judiciary. Since the French Revolution [of 1789], no French government has ever been capable of removing the link between prosecutors and the Justice Ministry. It's just too politically useful," says Yves Meny, director of the Florence-based Robert Schuman center and an international expert on corruption.
But for Catherine Samet, an investigating judge in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, the key value of these reforms is the promise to pour resources into the judicial system.
"We are understaffed, overworked, and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases we are seeing," she says. "There's a joke among judges that the budget provides only three pencils a month. Once the last one is used up, we just stop taking notes. These reforms could help."