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Zooming in on French Justice 

Zooming in on French Justice 
 Jean-Paul Tran Thiet
Senior Fellow - Justice, European Affairs

Though less publicized than other parts of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential program, the campaign commitments made for the judiciary were ambitious. As candidate, Macron had promised to simplify the judicial public service, make it more accessible to citizens and to increase its independence. Significant reforms have taken place in that sense, reorganizing the courts and civil procedures. Yet, a number of projects still need to be rolled out in order to keep with the commitments made in 2017. Jean-Paul Tran Thiet, lawyer and Senior Fellow at Institut Montaigne, takes stock of the main measures put in place during the last presidential mandate. 

With less than three months to go until the French election, this article is part of a series that looks into the achievements and drawbacks of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. The extended analysis in French can be found here

Key Notions: 

  • Minister of Justice - The French Ministry of Justice is currently headed by Éric Dupond-Moretti, in office since 2020. The individual who holds this position is also known as the Garde des Sceaux, or the Keeper of the Seals of France.
  • Justice 2018-2022 - The 2018-2022 programming and reform bill for Justice has several aims: simplifying civil proceedings, increasing the efficiency of administrative justice, increasing the efficiency of criminal procedures, ensuring fair sentencing, finding prison alternatives for young offenders and finally, adapting the way courts are run accordingly. 
  • The new juvenile criminal justice code - In effect since September 30, 2021, is the first revision of juvenile code since 1945. 
  • The bill for building confidence in the justice system (Confiance dans l'institution judiciaire) - A justice reform introduced by Dupond-Moretti, aimed at restoring trust between citizens and the judicial institutions. 
  • SPIP - The penitentiary integration and probation services, ensuring the oversight and accompaniment of the individuals that are brought to justice, whether they are incarcerated or not.

Key figures: 

  • €2.7 billion were added to the justice budget, mounting to a 33% increase.
  • In 2018, France spent €69.5 per capita on its judicial system. It is still lagging behind several of its European partners, such as Germany (€131 per capita), Spain (€92.6 per capita) and Italy (€83.2 per capita).
  • Macron’s government only created 7000 new prison places compared to the 15,000 he promised. The 8000 remaining should be created by 2027. 

Evaluation French judicial policy: 

  • During his presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron proposed an ambitious justice reform program. He promised to strengthen the judicial authority, to increase the accessibility of justice through a major digital transformation project and to simplify its organization. His program also included a significant increase in the number of prison places but also better alternatives to prison sentences, as well as a reform of juvenile justice. Finally, Emmanuel Macron promised to strengthen cooperation with the European Union.
  • Over the five years, the budget of the Ministry of Justice was increased by +33% compared to 2016, in line with the guidelines of the Justice Programming Act. However, while human and financial resources have increased since 2017, they are still below the European average per capita. Moreover, Macron has only partially fulfilled his promise to create 15,000 prison places: with 7,000 additional places by 2022, France has certainly succeeded in containing overcrowding, but it remains one of the most problematic countries in Europe in this area. The government has nevertheless committed to creating 8,000 new places by 2027, in order to meet the presidential commitments.
  • Nicole Belloubet, Minister of Justice between 2017 and 2020, led a much talked-about reform that included several of the campaign proposals, but that remained essentially technical. The reform merged the lower courts with the high local courts, reinforced alternatives to prison sentences and simplified civil procedures. However, the reform has not yet managed to speed up the trial time as was expected. It nonetheless remains difficult to make an exhaustive assessment at this stage, given the late entry into force of many of its provisions.
  • A new juvenile criminal justice code was accompanied by the introduction of a presumption of penal irresponsibility for minors over the age of 13, a reduction in the use of pre-trial detention and a shortening of the procedure. As part of the reform, twenty new reeducation centers will open soon, though that is still less than what was initially promised. Their construction began at the end of 2021. 
  • The government committed to responding to everyday infractions by developing a community court system detailed on December 15, 2020 in a decree issued by the new Minister of Justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti. The government wants the judicial authority to be more reactive in dealing with petty offenses, with an increase in the number of prosecutors throughout the country, the development of local courts, and the strengthening of alternative measures to prosecution. Finally, a complementary reform was approved by the Parliament in December 2021, known as the Bill for confidence in the judiciary. It seeks to strengthen the rights of the defendant with measures such as limiting the preliminary investigations to two years, improving the protection of the secrecy of the defense, reducing the pre-trial detention period, as well as making it possible to film hearings.
  • The judicial branch was recently accused of being too lax, and there has been a growing opposition between the police and the judges. Such developments led Emmanuel Macron to launch the General Justice Assembly, currently ongoing. The objective is to bring together all citizens and justice actors to draw up a complete inventory of the current needs in the justice system. However, this initiative has clearly revealed a malaise among justice professionals and a growing estrangement from citizens, a gap which Macron's term of office has been unable to bridge. 
  • A major initiative of the presidential program is the constitutional revision. It seeks to strengthen the judicial authority by subjecting the appointment of public prosecutors to the assent of the Superior Council of the Judiciary. The reform aims to increase the independence of the judiciary, but will not be voted on before the end of Macron’s term. 
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