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An unusual strike even for France: Judges walk out

Spurred by the suicide of an overworked French magistrate, thousands of judges left their courthouses on Wednesday to protest the poor state of the country's understaffed courts.

(CN) — France is used to strikes, but on Wednesday it saw something it has never witnessed before: Most of the country's black and red-robed judges staged a walkout and demanded better working conditions.

Across France, judges, lawyers, magistrates, clerks and other court workers stood outside courthouses and France's budget ministry in Paris to protest against excruciating work hours, badly understaffed courts and hurried legal proceedings. They held signs declaring: “Sick justice,” “The justice we render no longer makes sense” and “Statistics everywhere, justice nowhere.”

It was the first time France's largest trade union of judges – the conservative Union Syndicale des Magistrats – approved a strike, a sign of just how bad the situation is.

Previously, the union interpreted French law as precluding judges from striking and interrupting the flow of the courts, but its governing council accepted a new reading of the law and condoned the strike.

A smaller magistrates' trade union – the left-wing Syndicat de la Magistrature that represents about 30% of French magistrates – also supported the protest, but it has long maintained that judges can strike. The judges' unions were joined by groups representing other court workers.

This action by France's judiciary comes three weeks after thousands of judges and court clerks signed an open letter accompanying an emotional plea about the poor state of France's courts published in Le Monde newspaper. The letter told the story of an overworked 29-year-old magistrate named Charlotte who committed suicide in August.

The appeal said Charlotte, like so many judges, worked on many weekends and through her vacations. She was crushed by a judicial system demanding judges work faster at the expense of quality, the letter said.

“This is why we, judicial magistrates who very rarely speak publicly, have decided to sound the alarm today,” the magistrates wrote.

The Union Syndicale des Magistrats called on the French government to hire more judges and court staff.

“Human resources are notoriously insufficient,” the union said in a news release. “If this were not the case, the magistrates' working hours would be decent, their rest periods respected, the litigants would be better listened to, trial deadlines would be reasonable and the hearings, in particular correctional hearings, would end before nightfall.”

Figures from the Council of Europe show that French courts are understaffed compared to other systems in Europe. For every 100,000 people, France has 11 judges and three prosecutors, far below the European median of 11 prosecutors and 18 judges for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti showed little sympathy for the protest and defended President Emmanuel Macron's government, citing an increase of 8% in spending on courts for 2021 and 2022. Since Macron took office in 2017, he said France has made strides in modernizing its courts and countering two decades of “abandonment” and lack of investment.

“When we arrived, at the start of the five-year term, there was no Wi-Fi in the jurisdictions, we did it,” Dupond-Moretti said on France Inter, a public radio broadcaster. “There was hardly any optical fiber, we did it.”

With a presidential campaign now in full swing ahead of elections in April, he questioned the motives of the protesting judges, suggesting the protest might be more about politics than poor working conditions.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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