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French magistrates bring court system to a standstill in protest

French judges have staged an unprecedented protest against what they say is undue criticism by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Most courthouses were closed as protesters, including magistrates, took to the streets.

Statue of goddess of justice

France's justice system is at a standstill this week

Judges, lawyers and police officers took to the streets of several French cities on Thursday in a standoff with President Nicolas Sarkozy and the government.

In the western city of Nantes, which was the focus for the protests, some 2,000 demonstrators marched, including judges in robes.

The protests took place under the banner "Justice is in danger, let's unite," with protesters accusing Sarkozy of depicting magistrates in Nantes like criminals in comments he made about a recent high-profile case.

Similar protests took place in the cities of Paris, Toulouse, Marseille and Bordeaux, the scenes being described as "unprecedented" by unions representing the judges.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy upset judges with his comments on an emotive case

Sarkozy had complained of incompetence by magistrates in the western Loire-Atlantique region after an 18-year-old waitress disappeared and her dismembered body was found in a pond.

Sarkozy complains of incompetence, dysfunction

The president said they should not have released Tony Meilhon, the serial offender accused of her murder, without the 31-year-old receiving counseling as stipulated in the conditions of his leaving jail.

"Whoever covered or allowed this offence [Meilhon's release without follow-up counseling] will be punished, that's the rule," Sarkozy had threatened, accusing both the police and judiciary of "dysfunctions" in the case.

Meilhon was released from prison last February 24 after serving out the last of 13 convictions for a range of crimes, including the rape of a minor fellow prisoner and robbery.

The body of the girl, identified by her first name Laetitia, was found last week.

The magistrates are also complaining of a shortage of resources, which they say means not every serial offender can be monitored.

The conservative Sarkozy has crossed swords with the judiciary before. In 2006, he accused judges of being soft on delinquents.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg, Richard Connor (AP, dpa, AFP)
Editor: Martin Kuebler

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