Sun Feb 24th, 2008 at 12:18:01 AM EST
The French parliament has recently voted a government proposal instituting the possibility of keeping in jail, after the end of their imprisonment sentence, "particularly dangerous" criminals presenting a particularly high risk of recidivism : the rétention de sureté or safety retention.
This law, making jail terms infinitely extensive, is shameful and frightening in itself. It was passed after such a recently released criminal kidnapped a kid. It means, essentially, punishing people for crimes they might commit. But Sarkozy wants it to apply to already condemned criminals - notwithstanding the fact that the French constitution, indeed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, explicitly forbids it :
8. The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.
It seems Sarkozy has a problem with this paragraph, and is ready to forget France's institutional rules to avoid it.
France has a mechanism for preventing unconstitutional laws from being promulgated : the Conseil Constitutionnel has to approve them, if 60 MPs ask for it.
And it didn't approve : the law can only apply to crimes not yet committed.
Sarkozy is claiming he wants to "defend the victims" (of crimes not yet committed...) and wants the law to apply to those already in jail. As the people subjected to this law would be condemned for grave criminal offences, the law only applies to people sent to jail for at least 15 years ; if the law only affects crimes yet uncommitted, it will only have effect 15 years from now - something that doesn't satisfy a President who wants everything, right now. So he is trying to circumvent it :
|Elysee.fr | Présidence de la République | Porte parole | Déclaration du Porte-parole suite à la validation par le Conseil Constitutionnel de l'introduction de la rétention de sûreté dans notre droit || ||Declaration of the spokesman concerning the validation by the Conseil Constitutionnel of the introduction in our laws of the safety retention|
|Le Conseil Constitutionnel a accepté toutes les mesures d'accompagnement de la sortie des criminels actuellement détenus que contenait la loi. Pour autant l'application immédiate de la rétention de sûreté aux criminels déjà condamnés, qui présentent les mêmes risques de récidive, reste un objectif légitime pour la protection des victimes. || ||The Conseil Constitutionnel has accepted all the measures on following the release of criminals currently in jail that were introduced by the law. Yet the immediate application of the safety retention on already condemned criminals, who present the same risk of recidivism, remains a legitimate aim for protecting the victims.|
| Le Président de la République a demandé au Premier Président de la Cour de Cassation d'examiner la question et de faire toutes les propositions nécessaires pour l'atteindre. || ||The President of the Republic has asked the First President of the Cour de Cassation to examine the question, and to make all proposals necessary to reach that aim.|
A bit of French constitutional law : the position equivalent to that of the US Supreme Court is divided in two Courts in France : the Conseil Constitutionnel validates laws according to the Constitution before they are promulgated, whereas the Cour de Cassation is the court of last resort (before the EU justice system) ; the Cour de Cassation is not supposed to interpret the constitutional validity of laws.
In effect, Sarkozy is not recognising the validity of the decision of the Conseil Constitutionnel. Which is contrary to the French Constitution, obviously :
The French National Assembly - Constitution of October 4, 1958
A provision declared unconstitutional shall be neither promulgated nor implemented.
No appeal shall lie from the decisions of the Constitutional Council. They shall be binding on public authorities and on all administrative authorities and all courts.
What happens when the President dismisses the constitution, in effect staging a coup d'état ?
Thankfully there have been some protests :
|Le Monde.fr : Rétention de sûreté : levée de boucliers contre l'initiative de Nicolas Sarkozy - Politique || ||Le Monde.fr - Safety retention : Strong criticisms against Nicolas Sarkozy's initiative.|
|Pour les syndicats de magistrats, Nicolas Sarkozy tente bel et bien un contournement du Conseil constitutionnel. Dans un communiqué, le Syndicat de la magistrature (SM), classé à gauche, s'élève contre "un coup de force inacceptable", demande à Vincent Lamanda de refuser de donner suite à la demande présidentielle et appelle à manifester le 20 mars à Paris pour une "nuit de défense des libertés". Même indignation du côté de de l'Union syndicale des magistrats (USM), majoritaire au sein de la profession : "C'est une décision ahurissante, unique dans l'histoire de la Ve République", a estimé son secrétaire général, Laurent Bedouet. || ||For the judges' unions, Nicolas Sarkozy is indeed trying to circumvent the Conseil Constitutionnel. In a press release, the Syndicat de la magistrature, which has a left bent, protests against an "unacceptable show of force", asks Vincent Lamanda [the First President of the Conseil Constitutionnel] to refuse following on the presidential question and calls for a demonstration on March 20th in Paris for a "night for defending freedoms". The same indignation is to be found in the majority union, Union syndicale des magistrats : "this is an amazing decision, unique in the history of the Fifth Republic", its secretary general, Laurent Bedouet, has estimated. |
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|Les superlatifs son également de rigueur au Parti socialiste. Jean-Marc Ayrault, président du groupe socialiste à l'Assemblée nationale, a dénoncé une "stupéfiante atteinte à l'état de droit". "Le président de la République n'est plus le garant de la Constitution dans notre pays", écrit le député-maire de Nantes dans un communiqué. || ||Superlatives are also used in the Parti Socialiste. Jean Marc Ayrault, president of the National Assembly socialist group, has denounced "a stupefying hit on the rule of law". "The President of the Republic is no longer upholding the Constitution in our country", writes the mayor and deputy of Nantes in a press release.|
This is not the first time Sarkozy is taking liberties with the Constitution ; after he sent his (now former) wife in Libya to free the hostages there, a inquiry was started by the parliament, and Sarkozy said Cécilia would not testify in front of the commission - a claim of executive privilege that doesn't exists in France.
What happens now ? The institutional defence against a President not upholding the constitution is the Parliament impeaching him - but as the French National Assembly has a right wing majority, this is not going to happen. Compare and contrast with the liberties George W. Bush is taking with the US constitution.
In the end, there aren't going to be mass demonstrations against the President stepping out of his limits, even in France. Particularly not on the pretext the President has chosen : keeping evil murderous paedophiles in jail ! The opposition is going to gesticulate a bit, but the majority won't withdraw its support. Sarkozy will get his way. What guarantees the Constitution will be respected ? nothing. The good will of political actors is always necessary.
Some claimed Sarkozy would just be another Chirac - but it seems this new President will try to break the institutions standing in his way, and that is why he is very dangerous.