« France's investigating magistrates have been a central pillar of the country's Napoleonic justice system for over 200 years. Acting as independent, neutral investigators into crimes, they collect evidence that is then used by justice officials to either try or dismiss a case. Feared and respected, hailed and derided, the juge d'instruction has been immortalized in literature and film. French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac once described his role as that of the "most powerful man" in the country.
Now, though, French President Nicolas Sarkozy says he wants to do away with the position in order to "guarantee the rights of people under investigation." Opponents say the move will leave the nation's legal process broken and vulnerable to political manipulation. »
And from today's NYT:
« President Nicolas Sarkozy started his five-year term in 2007 with far-reaching plans to shake up France’s judicial system, a system built on codes laid down about 200 years ago.
Spurred perhaps by judicial scandals, or maybe by his experience during visits to the United States as interior minister, the new president hoped to create a justice system better equipped for the 21st century. In a speech early last year to the ermine-clad judges of the Cour de Cassation, France’s supreme court, he laid out his hope to replace the inquisitorial pillar of the system — the investigating magistrate.But overturning a system established by Napoleon and imposing a more Anglo-Saxon, adversarial model was never going to be simple. Eighteen months after that speech, the issue appears to have slipped down the agenda and critics of the government sense that the magistrates may have won a stay of execution.
French magistrates were given wide powers in 1810, refined in the 1950s. They can initiate investigations — on the recommendation of a prosecutor or victims — and can raid and search premises, order wiretaps, confiscate documents and summon witnesses. They decide whether a case should go to trial and make their findings available to the defense and the prosecution.
The government argues that magistrates have become anachronistic and unwieldy, with their multiple roles. [Michèle Alliot-Marie, the justice minister], has argued that they no longer conform with European norms and cannot guarantee equality of justice across regions and social groups. »