`CAN you demonstrate, Maitre, that Monsieur Barrabas actually made use of information provided by his wife, to the prejudice of her employer?"
A dozen or so people sit in scattered rows facing the bench. Behind it, four judges, medallions hung around their necks on broad tricolor ribbons, listen to the testimony. The case has been brought by a telecommunications specialist fired for allegedly passing trade secrets to her husband, who works for her company's competition. A dockworker in bluejeans and sneakers presides.
This is the Conseil des Prud'hommes, a tribunal for the settlement of workplace disputes that is unique to France. Any conflict pitting an individual employee against his or her employer is brought first before the Prud'hommes. Four conseillers (councilors) - two workers, two employers - judge each case. They are elected and have no advanced legal training, but their decisions are binding. Steady rise in cases
Serge Faye, who directs legal services for one of France's three main labor federations and has been a councilor since 1979, says the most striking development in the Prud'hommes' activity has been its extension across all fields of employment. "Whereas in the past, certain branches of industry might have been particularly concerned, now it's everyone: industry, commerce, the service sector, white-collar workers, too," Mr. Faye says.
In 1991, more than 200,000 cases were brought before the Prud'hommes and some 148,000 were concluded. These numbers have risen steadily over the last 15 years.
Every major town has a Prud'homal council - 279 spread across France. The Paris chamber is in a northeastern neighborhood amid bakeries and cafes. The building is squat and square, made entirely of tinted glass. Its five color-coded floors correspond to the council's five sections (administration, commerce, industry, agriculture, and diverse). The hearing rooms are spare and clean, decorated only by a bust of Liberty, who looks down from an alcove in the wall behind the bench.
The only archaic thing about the Paris council is the name above the doorway. In Old French, prud'homme meant a "prudent man," a man respected for his character and good judgment.
The notion that ordinary men (and today women) of repute should judge their peers goes back to the 12th and 13th centuries, when nascent towns were fighting for their autonomy from the landed nobility. One of the clauses often demanded in early town charters was that the burghers be free from the lord's justice, which was slow, costly, and ill-suited to the new flood of commercial disputes that concerned the burgeoning towns.
It was Napoleon who founded, in the Lyon silk works, the institution as it has survived to the present day. At the turn of the 20th century - against a backdrop of economic crisis, violent strikes, and a growing revolutionary trade-union movement - the tribunal achieved its crucial modern elements: universal competence in the domains of industry, commerce, and transport; women's eligibility to vote and serve; and equal division of judges between management and labor, with presidents rotating.
To Philippe Sommers, an employer and past Prud'homal councilor in Fontainebleau, it is this equality that is most impressive about the Prud'hommes. "Parity among the judges," he says, "imposes an equal dialogue. And that leads to a justice that is less false."
Also critical, in Mr. Sommers's view, is that the councilors are not legal specialists. "We're workers and employers first. Only secondly are we jurisprudents. We're men of good sense and experience. And it really works."
Prud'homal justice is relatively swift: An average case spends between eight and 10 months in the system, slightly less than an ordinary civil suit. A hearing rarely takes more than half an hour, and except in extraordinary circumstances, councilors deliberate and announce their decision immediately.
The procedure is free: There are no court charges, except legal fees for those who choose to engage a lawyer. Councilors, who are released from their regular jobs for the time they sit - from four to 18 hours per week - are paid for that time by the government at a rate equal to their regular salaries. Informal proceedings
The proceedings are relatively informal. Parties, especially employees, often speak in their own behalf. The result is a plain - and often animated - dialogue.
Every case must pass through a conciliation phase, at which both parties are required to appear in person. One out of every 10 conflicts is settled at that stage. "Conciliation is terribly important," Sommers says. "It reduces the cost of the proceedings, and it allows civil relations between the parties to be restored."
Given the importance of the Prud'hommes in French life, observers point with concern to the decreasing voter participation in the elections for councilors, held once every five years. In balloting last December, the rate was down to 43 percent among employees. Less than one third of employers typically vote.
Part of the reason for the increasing abstention may be that Prud'homal elections serve multiple purposes. Because worker candidates are presented not individually, but by slates according to labor federation, the vote has become a measure of trade-unionism in general, and of the relative strength of the five labor federations. In France, as in the United States, trade unionism is declining.
In spite of their bitter rivalry, however, French unions are unanimous in their support of the Prud'hommes. Each has legal-services divisions to handle cases, and several have published guides to the Prud'hommes' jurisdiction and procedures. They joined in calling on workers to vote in the elections. The unions' support is shared, moreover, by the main employers' association, the CNPF (Conseil National du Patronat Francais).
"Naturally," says Alain Gauze, a Marseille delegate to the CGT (Confration Grale du Travail), France's largest labor federation, "the employers would rather go to court and pay a fine than be faced with a strike.... A legal procedure is easier for them to deal with." Empowerment for workers
Indeed there is some dispute in France as to whether the Prud'homal system undermines worker militancy - inducing employees to accept an individual settlement rather than demand collective rights.
Employee councilors and plaintiffs agree, however, that the experience of bringing suit against an employer in a truly equal setting is a profoundly empowering one.
Dockworker Andre Rouard, for example, has spent the past year and a half in the vanguard of a nationwide labor conflict that included almost weekly strike actions and occasionally violent confrontations with the national police. But he is equally devoted to his duties as presiding councilor of the Marseilles Conseil des Prud'hommes. "What comes up before the Prud'hommes," he says, "are issues of legal rights. They need to be defended, too."
Mr. Rouard uses his role in court as a way of imposing his equal status on a society that he says is unwilling to accept it. "I wear my bluejeans on purpose," he says. "They told me to put on a suit, and the next time I came in with my shirt undone to here. So they gave up." But inside the courtroom, Rouard runs the proceedings with authority and precision and renders judgments that are linked tightly to the language of France's labor laws.
Not everyone is happy with the justice of the Prud'hommes. Professional judges call it "amateurish." Councilors call for more administrative personnel and improved automation. And many unionists wish it were possible to order the rehiring of a worker judged to have been fired unfairly, besides levying a fine.
"But that's a labor-law reform," says Councilor Faye, "not a reform of the Prud'hommes. It's a critical question, though. The ability to impose and enforce sanctions other than fines is one of the key issues in French labor law, and French law in general."