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date: 25 February 2018

Lawyers and Courts in French Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

From watching imported American popular culture dramas focusing on criminal justice, French television viewers have become confused as to how their own legal system really works. They have erroneous expectations of behaviours in court, like addressing judges by the wrong title, a title that comes from poor dubbing. Or they will refuse to answer questions, thinking they have Fifth Amendment protections, when they do not. They know very little of the organization of courtroom space. Since it is forbidden by law to take photographs or film trials in France, it is difficult to bring accurate court images to the public. The French produce police dramas, but very few series or made-for-television movies on justice, thus providing no alternatives for these erroneous criteria. They do, however, produce documentaries and docudramas dealing with past investigations or with timely issues such as recidivism or reintegration into society after prison. Documentaries, although pertinent, give viewers only one-shot access to the representations of justice and the legal professions they contain. The do not facilitate the acquisition over time of a legal culture.

In addition to the confusion, the French have a negative image of lawyers as motivated by money and politics rather than justice. Films and French television fictions are responsible for this impression. Television news reports are short and give incomplete accounts of the law or on-going proceedings. Sometimes lawyers are interviewed in these reports, but never prosecutors or judges. Judges and prosecutors are magistrats, not lawyers. They train in different institutions from lawyers and are civil servants, so they are not as likely as lawyers to be making a lot of money, nor are they free to make public statements. The image of these professions is consequently more positive in the French imagination as portrayed in the popular culture.

Keywords: France, popular culture, lawyers, courts, television, film, series, news, imaginary, legal culture

If one were to compare a caricature of French lawyers by Honoré Daumier, a 19th century French artist and caricaturist, well known for his press parodies of political figures and members of the legal profession, to a modern sketch of a French courtroom, the difference would not be so striking as would be a comparison of the accused.

Lawyers and Courts in French Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 1. “People of justice,” caricature by Honoré Daumier.

It is no longer the desolate and poor who are depicted; but rather, defendants wearing leather jackets and sporting stubble and histrionic lawyers, waving their arms in the air as they plead to the court, look very much the same. This is certainly due in part to the robes that French lawyers have worn since the 18th century,1 but public attitudes towards lawyers and the images of this branch of the legal profession in French culture have not changed much since Daumier (Figure 1). French lawyers never wore wigs but a round cap, which has disappeared today, although it was used for a while, apparently, for entering court, by a handful of lawyers aware of the power of visual perception. Indeed since most people do not go to court, it is largely via visual perception and popular culture that images of lawyers enter the popular imagination. Not only do the French have mental images of how lawyers dress and speak in court, but expectations of their character, their ambitions, even their lifestyle have their source in popular culture productions.

The image of lawyers in the popular imagination is essentially tied to the idea of money and trickery. Their science is seen to give them tools, within the law and legal language, to swindle people, to manipulate the unsuspecting and naïve. Yet, at the same time, they fascinate the public because of their long studies and the social position they acquire. This status both attracts the public and causes envy. Lawyers are thus the object of people’s admiration and their distrust. Courtroom sketches, in which lawyers raise their arms to plead, agitating the wide sleeves of their long black robes for a more theatrical effect, have become the traditional image people have of them as well as of the courts (Figure 2).

Lawyers and Courts in French Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 2. Courtoom sketch by Sylvie Guillot.

Indeed, many have referred to the theatricality of French court proceedings where ritual is of great importance, set phrases are spoken at specific moments. However, in reality, people have a vague image of the organization of judicial space and little notion of the different robes translating the professional hierarchy in the room. They imagine the décor of all courts to be always gilded and very elaborate, and indeed this is true in the older courts, but their replacement by stark and austere modern courts on the outskirts of the main cities has caused much criticism within the profession. Indeed, it is felt that the loss of traditional symbolism will weaken the image of the judicial institution among the citizens.

Because courtroom sketches are confined to courtroom activity, they have been a very important source of how the public sees lawyers in court, but they do not provide sufficient information as to the other legal professions or any of the work done outside of court, where much, if not most, criminal and civil justice is conducted. Unlike Common lawyers, who intervene in multiple domains, French lawyers mainly defend their clients’ interests before a judge, and in all such cases they must appear robed. They do not deal in marriage contracts, uncontested succession, or property transfers; that is the work of notaires, who are not civil servants but independent public officers, and were often characters in 19th-century literature like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Balzac’s Comédie Humaine. Lawyers in France are not divided into two groups in a way that mirrors the distinction between barristers and solicitors in the English legal system. However, an important distinction must be made between lawyers and prosecutors, who are not lawyers. In France, prosecutors are magistrats, more precisely magistrats debout (literally standing magistrats, that is prosecutors) who represent the Public Ministry in criminal cases before magistrats assis (literally sitting magistrats or in English, judges), who preside over trials. After the first law degree (three years), students can go off to train as notaires or lawyers, and those who continue after five years can take a selective entrance examination to go to the Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature in Bordeaux,2 where they will train as magistrats and end up as judges or prosecutors according to opportunity and rank among fellow students.3 Consequently, apart from initial law studies, lawyers and magistrats do not go through the same training; they do not belong to the same “club.”

Lawyers, prosecutors, and sitting judges, especially those robed in red in the Cour d’Assises (the high court of criminal justice), are frequently represented in courtroom sketches, but what people do not see in these drawings is the organization of judicial space. Apart from pictures of defendants in the dock—an open dock or one enclosed in armoured glass when the accused are considered dangerous—no one sees where jurors sit or from where counsel or prosecutors plead. Courtroom artists occupy a special place, usually near the judges’ bench, where they sketch images that they send to television stations and the press during recesses. At first glance, these drawings seem heavily influenced by Daumier’s style, but in actuality, they are bound by the traditions of trial procedure and courtroom decorum. Like barristers in the English legal system, French lawyers must plead from their place in court, which is often in front of their defendants, sometimes beside them. They stand to plead, but are not supposed to walk around the space reserved for speech, the space which is to remain neutral, a space where everything can be said, a “sacred” place where order is sought to replace chaos (Garapon, 1997, p. 47), a space for closure and repair. The histrionics therefore add color to a very static discourse. Recently, it would seem, the influence of American films and television courtroom dramas have inspired a few lawyers to move around within that space, upon permission of the court perhaps.

Media Representations

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Figure 3. Cour d’ Assises du Parlement de Bretagne, photograph by Abujoy.

The law of December 6, 1954 banned cameras of any kind in courtrooms, so there are relatively few images of real lawyers in real courts (Figure 3), in comparison to what is available in the United States. The only exception to this has been the filming of “extraordinary” trials for crimes against humanity, such as the trials of World War Two collaborators Paul Touvier and Maurice Papon, or the SS officer Klaus Barbie, known as the butcher of Lyon. In ordinary circumstances, no photographers can take any pictures once court is in session. Photographers and journalists stand in the corridors of court houses, therefore, waiting to interview lawyers defending the accused or representing victims or their families.4 It is extremely rare for prosecutors to let themselves be interviewed, but this can happen in highly mediatized trials to give an alternative view of a case on the news. Sitting magistrats are never interviewed on television or anywhere else; it is considered unsuitable for these members of the judiciary to make public statements. For this reason, very few, if any, sitting judges are known to the public, either by name or face. Lawyers obviously take advantage of the short courthouse interviews that will be shortened even further when inserted in evening television news reports, which contain short commentary of important on-going trials. However, these sound-bite interviews are only used to refute the already known charges and do not give any insight into material elements of argument.

When a major crime has been committed the Procureur de la République (Chief Prosecutor of the main city of the area in question) will make a statement, describing the crime, saying whether suspects have been identified, apprehended, or are still at large. In these televized moments, they appear in street dress, not robes. However, if lawyers are interviewed in the courthouse when a news report announces that a person he/she will be defending is under investigation, he/she will often appear in their robes. In some investigations, a prosecutor will hand over the judicial police’s findings to another magistrat, le juge d’instruction (an investigating judge). He/she is a sitting judge but does not operate in court. Instead this judge conducts a very thorough and often long investigation, from his/her office, unrobed. He/she will interview witnesses and the suspect, in presence of his/her lawyer, who must be robed. The juge d’instruction can request a reconstitution of the act committed, on the crime scene, he/she can seize evidence in presence of the police, although usually sending them to do it without him/her, upon issuing a document that many television dubbing agencies have hastily assimilated to the American warrant. His/her job during the investigation is to gather and examine all the evidence that both proves (enquête à charge) and disproves (enquête à décharge) the suspect’s implication in the crime committed. This investigation is to be protected from the media. The suspect must benefit at this stage from any information leaking out to the press. This is for his/her protection as well as for the presumption of his/her innocence. As a further protection, this secret de l’instruction (investigation protected as secret) is to persist should the investigation end up in a non-lieu (dismissed case, which can be definitive, or until taken up again due to new information), that is to say, if charges are not pressed and the case does not go to court. If, on the other hand, the suspect is charged and his/her case goes to court, the cap on all information is raised, and the media as well as the public, have the right to know. These limits on the content of any interviews, obviously contribute to the public’s vague image of lawyers and courts.

These safeguards, however, are often somewhat stretched by lawyers in answer to journalists avid for information to publish. Lawyers themselves are divided over the benefit of this secrecy to their clients. Some feel the publicity of main arguments would stop the press from leaping to judgments and seeking unauthorized information. Others feel that a more lenient attitude to the secret de l’instruction could backfire against their clients; their feeling is that a trial should take place in court and not outside in the media (Civard-Racinais, 1995, pp. 21–31). Lawyers are further bound to their own deontological obligation of lawyer-client confidentiality. The public is little aware of the dilemmas lawyers must face to protect a client or his/her family because of this obligation not to reveal any of what is under investigation or of what the client has confided in him/her. Such conflicts are more the material of fictions than documentaries or—a French specialty—the television magazine programs, a television format the French often use to reopen a case. Often broadcast on prime time, with reruns at different times of the day and evening, these magazines are full programs in which the real stories of a crime, an arrest, or a judicial scandal are retold. The show will replay a crime and the investigation. It will contain photographs of victims, the crime scene, and the arrest if there was one. Dramatic music contributes to a tone of suspense, even though the case may be quite old and will have already been reported in the news. Each magazine program has its regular presenter, who narrates the basic elements (“at 23:46, on November 19th, Jean Dupont was found beaten to death in his suburban pavilion in the north of Paris,” etc). Since these are cases in which the secret de l’instruction has been raised, details are discussed, theories are given, and lawyers (unrobed), police investigators, experts, and acquaintances of the victim or of the person convicted of the crime, are interviewed at length. The most well known of these magazine programs is Faites entrer l’accusé (“Please bring in the defendant,” aired on Antenne [channel] 2, 2000–present). Other shows belonging to the genre are broadcast on smaller channels or at less popular scheduling times. These include Enquêtes impossibles (“Impossible investigations,” NT1, 2008); Crimes (NRJ12, 2012); and Les faits de Karl Zero, (“Karl Zero’s facts,” 13è rue, 2014).

The narrative style and dramatic music used in retelling these stories gives the shows some of the intensity of fiction. In the 1990s, many docudramas imported from the United States combined news archives, narrative, and fictional reconstitutions to revisit famous cases. These docudramas were broadcast in dubbed versions on French television, for example on channel M6 under the title Docs de choc (“Shocking documentaries”/“Strong documentaries”). Soon the French produced their own docudramas, first because it seemed the public was drawn to this format, but also, and more importantly, because the fictional scenes made it possible to show moments from the trial in the program, among the interviews and news extracts usual in documentary footage. One of the best of these was Rendez-moi justice (“Get justice for me”) by Denys Granier-Deferre (2006), which covered the case of a brutal murder in southern France. This was a crime that had been extensively reported in the news, but it was particularly important to have trial scenes in the docudrama because of several unexpected dramatic moments occurring in court. Two testimonies and the confession of the co-defendant led to the acquittal of the other, who had been convicted of the crime in the press before any verdict was given.

Besides docudramas and magazine programs, there are many talk shows on French television that sometimes allot time to a discussion of a legal issue (like the reform of the juge d’instruction’s scope of activity) or recurrent problems (recidivism, overcrowded prisons). It is not impossible in these cases for a particularly outspoken lawyer, one who is at ease with the media, to be a guest on these shows with sociologists and journalists, or some other expert. Lawyers are not regularly invited to talk shows, but this can happen if they are defending a particularly important or notorious character, or if the trial they are participating in is highly mediatized and controversial. Magistrats (prosecutors or judges) are never on talk shows unless they are retired.5 They are civil servants and are not independent of the Ministry of Justice (le Ministère public). Occasionally, a whole show will be devoted to a legal question usually following an important event in the news. For example, the recent cases of women shooting violent husbands in self-defense was the subject of talk show discussions with defense counsel appearing (unrobed) to present arguments and discuss the inaptitude of current laws to protect women in these situations.

Such television sources offer the public a vague idea of the issues that are briefly covered in the news and allow them to follow cases that receive scant coverage elsewhere. Some lawyers’ faces are known to the public, but as news interviews are inserted in short reports their names may go unnoticed. When appearing on talk shows, they often appear as just another guest, no distinctive image or special position on the show. However, they are seen as big talkers, consistent with the traditional popular image of lawyers. For the other members of the legal profession, evening news reports and documentaries have transmitted a notion of their roles to the public, the juge d’instruction, the chief prosecutor of a major city; but these roles remain vague, and the individuals carrying out these functions remain virtually anonymous, unless a juge d’instruction goes after a politician or big business for example.

Popular Fiction Representations

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Figure 4. TV series “Avocats et Associés,” production Son et Lumières.

A call by the Minister of Justice in the early 2000s for more coverage of French courtroom procedure on television, as an antidote to the Americanization of French representations of law and justice, led to a number of new productions (Figure 4). Indeed, the judiciary was fed up with people coming to court with expectations of an American trial: a single judge, a witness box, a jury box, the right to refuse to answer a question under their fifth amendment protection, etc. French citizens were clearly ignorant of their own legal system and confused between reality and what they saw in imported fictions on television.

Following the Ministry’s encouragement to produce visual alternatives to American courtroom dramas, a court session could be filmed, upon special permission obtained from the presiding judge to produce a documentary. Several films (for example, filmmaker Raymond Depardon’s 2004 documentary, 10è Chambre [Tenth chamber]) gave an impression of small claims courts and the nearly assembly line rhythm of dealing with cases. An interesting documentary of a retrial by Joëlle Lancol in 2002, L’appel aux assises [an appeal in criminal court], showed how the French trial serves to verify and confirm the information gathered by the juge d’instruction prior to court proceedings. Besides trial scenes, the film includes interviews of the presiding judge, his assistants, and the jurors giving some insight as to the dilemma of judging. Although whenever charges are pressed, even in cases of confessions, the case will go to trial, most of the criminal justice work takes place before or after trial, that is to say, outside of court. Some documentaries have given an idea of what goes on before or after, especially after, with the series (shown on TF1, 1992–1996) about a JAP (juge de l’application des peines [judge in charge of applying sentences]—now replaced by a juge de la détention et des libertés [judge in charge of detention and supervised liberty]. Before these efforts, many French documentaries on courtroom work were shot in the United States, where it was easier to obtain permission to film. One of the most impressive of these was Un Coupable Idéal by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (2003; the English title is Murder on a Sunday Morning).6 This was the story of a Florida youth picked up and tried for the murder of a woman in Florida. The American cable television channel HBO saw de Lestrade’s initial project and advised him to incorporate the tools and techniques of fiction to heighten the dramatic elements of the story. This strategy was so successful, it led to de Lestrade’s winning an Academy Award for best foreign film in 2002. Furthermore, despite the subject being American justice, the film served as a model for future documentaries. The new French documentaries have had the merit of giving a more precise image of the organization of judicial space, ritual speech, and the stages of procedure. The French produce many more documentaries on judicial activity than fictions (Villez & Rolando, 2016).7 For a start, they attach much importance to presenting what they consider serious material in the most serious way, preferring transparency to imagination and spectacle. Nevertheless, if the call to the media was to give the public material to enable them to acquire knowledge of their own court system, documentaries have failed because they are often broadcast only once, or if reruns are programed, these are usually late at night or on off hours where a very small audience is watching.

A more efficient means to help the public acquire knowledge about the courts and the legal professions resides in cinematic and televisual fictions. For a start, films and television series are constructed so as to capture people’s attention more easily than documentaries. In addition, information about the legal system can be placed at strategic moments, providing opportunities to learn, as in the admirable film L’Hermine [Ermine] (directed by Christian Vincent, 2016). Proof of the successful influence of these sources are the multiple anecdotes related by lawyers and magistrats, of people unfortunately behaving as if they lived in imported American fictions, for example witnesses addressing judges in court as “Votre honneur” (translating as “Your honour”) rather than the appropriate French address, Monsieur ou Madame le (la) président(e). These imported fictions are widely accessible on television, DVDs, or on the Internet, which allows for an extensive and varied audience. Law is all about stories, and stories are at the heart of courtroom dramas so the nature of this material is propitious to entering a reflection on the law and justice. People enter the narrative and follow a case, a trial, discover a judicial dilemma. Cinematic productions must be forceful because, for the most part, they offer a single opportunity for viewing. Television series, on the other hand, provide repeated rendez-vous and, through regular watching, people acquire knowledge through the combination of cognitive activity and entertainment.

Lyonel Pellerin, a lawyer from Nantes, has produced some of the most comprehensive work on the image of lawyers in French cinema (Pellerin, 2005), revealing that in early films of the 1920s, two types of lawyers existed on screen. The major distinction between negative images of lawyers and positive portrayals was based on their relation to money: profit and greed on one hand, honesty and integrity on the other. The character of the lawyer, tempted by money and politics, disdainful and uninterested in the client he/she was to represent, was seen in opposition to the devoted lawyer unconcerned by whether his/her client could pay his/her fee. Pellerin gives a list of early films like L’arriviste (André Hugon, 1924, “The Social Climber”), which depicts a lawyer, eager to stoop to any ruse or crime to become rich, who ends up in politics. Despite a small number of films where the lawyer character is an honorable man (in early films, lawyers were nearly always men) devoted to helping poor clients and protecting them from injustice, the French cinematic lawyer has been, and still is today, mostly old, cynical, disdainful of his clients, uninterested in the truth, aspiring to better business or political opportunities. Films in the late 1940s and early 1950s brought younger lawyers to the screen battling with questions of conscience, as in the film Nous sommes tous des assassins [We are all murderers] (1951, André Cayatte), where the death penalty is the real villain. Yet the character of the lawyer is at the center of these films, and there is little effort made to show what courtroom procedure is really like.

The films that followed in the 1960s maintained this image and, for the most part, this is still the case. Recent films have been less critical and more mocking of lawyers. In the comedy, 9 Months Stretch (Neuf mois ferme, 2013, Albert Dupontel) the defense lawyer is totally incomprehensible when explaining things to his client or pleading in court. He is a brilliantly comic lawyer who stutters and waves his arms in the air, true to the traditional image examined here. Recent French cinema has reserved a different image for women lawyers, however. They have been portrayed as more human, more positive, but also more fragile. To this day, female lawyers on big and small screens have been the moral conscience of the profession, defending clients with passion, overly emotional, totally disinterested in money or a political career (Pellerin, 2005).

Films of the 1970s began to call attention to another character of the legal profession, the juge d’instruction (a sort of examining magistrate). It is true that his role in cases resembles that of police work, the investigation and resolution of a mystery, and the French are very fond of such fictions.8 Actually, several events at this time could also be seen as impetus for the new focus: one was the creation, in 1968, of a union of magistrats, seen as a leftist movement by the traditional hierarchy of the judiciary and the Ministry. What was seen as the politicization of the magistracy made the news and became a widely discussed subject. In addition, during these years, several juges d’instruction investigated cases of corruption and crimes involving big business, which also attracted much media coverage. The juge d’instruction has long been a popular character in film and on television, often in opposition to the representation of lawyers. The petit juge (literally the “little judge,” a sort of David against the Goliaths of crime, especially at this time, white collar crime) is traditionally portrayed as impartial, devoted to justice, working alone, untouched by political intrigue, money or ambition.

Since the French are eager audiences for fictions centered on investigations, it is logical that a considerable number of French-produced series are police dramas. A few of these highlight the juge d’instruction, since he/she intervenes after initial police work and is the one to determine whether a case goes to court or not. Le juge est une femme9 (1993–2002), Florence Larrieu: le juge est une femme (2002–present), Alice Nevers: le juge est une femme (1999–2015), and Boulevard du Palais (1999–2015) are the longest running of these television series. (Boulevard du Palais is, literally, the street where the main courthouse of Paris, the Palais de justice or the Palace of Justice, is located.) Women are frequently juges d’instruction in these series, which is an accurate representation of the growing number of women occupying this position in the judiciary.

Foreign series are probably the most important source of representations of lawyers or courtroom proceedings, but, as seen, these have been known to cause confusion for French television viewers. Police series, again, are the most numerous and, when put together with other programs dealing with some aspect of law and justice (foreign courtroom drama, documentaries, magazine programs, and other types of shows), constitute 12% of the total of French television offer at any given time. Series compose between 75% and 80% of this entire offer (Villez & Rolando, 2016, p. 88). Quotas (a minimum of 60% of all shows on French television must be of French or European origin) restrict non-European productions on French television during prime time, and although it seems that most series dealing with lawyers or trials are from the United States, they constitute only 40% of the total. The rest are French or European police series. The 40% explains why the French are so familiar with such characters as Perry Mason, Rumpole (of the Bailey), Jack McCoy, or Ally McBeal. The imported series have presented a different image of lawyers from what French cinema has offered, and which is mostly continued in the few French series in which lawyers are central characters.

French series, and especially French produced made-for-television-movies, have been known to plant U.S. visual codes in courtroom scenes. One theory is that writers have no real knowledge of the French courtroom setup, since there are no lawyers-turned-scriptwriters in the production teams (Villez, 2009a). Consequently, these scenes show jurors in a separate box rather than sitting on either side of the three judges with whom they will deliberate on a verdict, or lawyers walking up to the witnesses to ask questions at a moment of purely common law procedure: the contre-interrogatoire (this is how French dubbers translate the “cross-examination” in American and English series, but the step does exist in French procedure). Another theory is that whatever scriptwriters do, the channels have the last word, and they dictate this “Americanization” of courtroom scenes because they believe this is what viewers expect to see (Villez, 2009a).

As a general rule, lawyer characters in French series have continued to give the impression of cynical, histrionic swindlers, seldom interested in their clients, out to make money, and either ineffectual in court or fast talkers with a hidden agenda, like getting the client convicted to please another client in the shadows. Avocats et Associés [Partners and associates] (shown on France 2, 1998–2010), a series about a Parisian law firm, offered nothing new in terms of the image of lawyers. Most were more interested in love affairs, advancement of their careers, or playing political games to climb the hierarchy of the Bar. Clients were either a nuisance or simply evil. The lawyers were more often in restaurants than in court, and when they did appear in court, they looked exactly and acted as one would expect from a Daumier drawing. An earlier series, Tribunal [Court] (TF1, 1988–1990), was an interesting French series because it is one of the few in French television history to convey a positive image of the courts, but not of lawyers or prosecutors. The benevolent, reassuring white-haired judge (sitting alone because, in a tribunal correctionnel,10 no one would really know that from any indication the narrative offered) listened carefully in each case to the prosecutors and defense lawyers, all of whom were regularly useless. Yet, he always came to a just decision. As a signal to the aura of justice, the opening credits followed a camera ascending the steps of a massive classic courthouse, and when it reached the top, the doors opened and a bright light would come through. This was a rare representation in the landscape of French series, as most such programs produced in France have painted a relatively negative, even depressing picture.

French series of the 2000s have done nothing to modify the image of lawyers and, as usual, contain very few courtroom scenes. Engrenages (aired from 2005 to the present, and broadcast in Great Britain and the United States under the title of Spiral) was a concerted effort of the French pay television station Canal Plus to enter the international series market. They put a great deal of effort into a more complex narrative with an ensemble cast and thus multiple narrative arcs. In the series, the police work with the prosecutor’s office and a juge d’instruction to solve cases and deal with the administrative problems of victims, those awaiting trial, or those wanting to initiate proceedings. Several members of the French magistracy have expressed a positive opinion of the show. They appreciate the fact that all the professions are represented as well as the way they interact within the system. The show also deals with the hierarchy of the magistracy, a theme occasionally present in the films of the 1970s or in police series, where questions of hierarchy and the rivalry between different brigades are frequent aspects. Yet, the image of lawyers remains negative despite momentary changes of character. Josephine Karlsson begins as an ambitious lawyer ready to pick up any defendant, through legal aid or organized crime connections. She despises her clients, often throwing her hands up in the air at their stupidity. She screams at them that there is no justice in this world. She delivers packages to mob leaders and warns squatters of a potential police raid, all of which she knows can lead to her disbarment. In that, she is a throw back to Gladys Dupré, in Avocats et Associés cited above, who lies and cheats without batting an eyelash. Karlsson falls in love with Pierre Clément, a young prosecutor who moves to Paris from the provinces for personal reasons. He is so noble that she becomes softer and more human several seasons later.

The prosecutor Clément, harassed by his superiors when he refuses to play a political game, ends up demoted to traffic court. Disgusted with what seems like endless intrigue and pressure, he walks out of court in season 3, symbolically throws his robe in the garbage, and leaves the magistracy to become a lawyer. No training is necessary; he just takes the oath and goes into partnership with Josephine. Viewers will then get another image of lawyers. Too naïve and big-hearted, he goes too far to help a troubled teenage defendant. Viewers know where this will lead, but he does not until he unsuspectingly gets accused of child abuse. Exonerated of this accusation, he later tries to protect an unstable father, separated from his son during the investigation of his involvement in the death of his ex-wife and her daughter. The suspect, with anger issues, loses control, and Clément gets in the way of his gun.

The series is not tender with the main juge d’instruction either. He blunders often, especially in the first two seasons and later, although very upright professionally, is seen to be personally weak, which does not really contribute anything to understanding his judicial role. The writing improved greatly as of season 3, and many members of the legal profession complimented the show on its realism. The main writers were replaced at that time by Anne Landois, who had assisted Denys Granier-Deferre in the writing of Rendez-moi justice. She reorganized the writing process for Engrenages and initiated regular meetings with lawyers and magistrats to consult them on aspects of their profession. She also co-authored the show during seasons 3 and 4 with a police commissioner using a pseudonym. They gave a very different flavor to the series and largely contributed to its success. The problem with most French series, however, is the long intervals between seasons. It is French television policy to start shooting a season when everything has been written, which is the reason for these interruptions and for possible audience loss.

In the meantime, French television has continued to broadcast series imported from other countries. Accusés (aired on France 2, 2015–present) is a mini-series of six episodes, adapted from the British series Accused, which has aired on BBC One, from 2010 to the present. Some of the stories in the French adaptation were the same, but the series showed more of what led up to the crime than courtroom scenes or lawyer-client interaction. The British series Broadchurch (ITV, 2013–present, and on France 2, 2014–2015) was a tremendous success on French television, and both seasons were broadcast on France 211 before a French adaptation Malaterra was made in 2015. Again, the courtroom scenes in Broadchurch season 2 corresponded to a English common law proceeding, and Malaterra contained few courtoom scenes, so neither series did much to advance the public’s acquisition of knowledge of the French institution of justice. In 2016, the French launched Liebowitz v. Liebowitz (France 2) about a small law firm, in which the rivalry between the two female lawyers is at the center of the narrative. The older one is the ex-wife of one of the partners and the other his young current wife. In the first episode, he dies of a sudden heart attack a few moments after his ex-wife learns of his new marriage. The rivalry is of little entertainment value and absolutely none in terms of viewers’ legal culture, as their dealings with clients are ineffectual, overly emotional, and unrealistic. The French are more inclined to write series about social interactions and social issues than law and justice. Made-for-television movies often turn to history as a source of legal material and fictionalize famous cases, for example: l’Affaire Dominici (2003, directed by Pierre Boutron, TF1); l’Affaire Villemin (2006, directed by Raoul Peck, France 3); or the abortion Trial of Bobigny (2003, directed by Francois Luciani, TF1). Most of these deal with crimes and investigations, while few, except for the Bobigny film, contain courtroom scenes.

The importance of visual perception to the acquisition of a legal culture for citizens must be remembered at this point. Stories lodged in visual images capture people’s attention and make them stay long enough to look, listen, and consider. The regular frequency of serial television has long been an advantage to the acquisition of this knowledge and, what is more, makes it possible to build upon what is acquired each week to strengthen viewers’ capacity to follow increasingly complex themes and questions currently debated by the legal professions. For these reasons, television is an extremely rich source of popular culture in contributing to citizens’ legal culture. Indeed television is easily accessible, and films and series are regularly available. Good stories and good acting attract viewers, whether or not they are interested in law and justice. A certain realism and the precision of the legal themes lead to the accumulation of knowledge and heighten interest. Writing teams in which real lawyers and magistrats participate would seem to be a step to improving the role of French popular culture in the acquisition of legal knowledge of the French legal system. This is common in the United States and Great Britain, but has had a very slow start in France. Despite the presence of consultants, who are only rarely consulted, it is not clear whether young scriptwriters can free themselves of their own traditional images of lawyers and courts coming largely from their own television experience, that is, series from the United Kingdom and the United States on French television.

To Film or Not to Film?

The question has been asked repeatedly how to solve this situation and eliminate the confusion. Apparently, before the 1954 law, when photographers were allowed in courtrooms, people had a more precise notion of French courtroom space. The media circus that sometimes resulted from their presence, especially in popular trials, clearly indicated a need for limitations. The limitation imposed was radical: to forbid the presence of any cameras in courts. At one time, French television viewers could benefit from the presence and the popularity of chroniquers judiciaires or legal correspondents. Several legal correspondents still write for the press, but there are fewer on television today. With more time and more expertise, they were able to go more deeply into the details of a case. There are few real court correspondents left today, and they are allotted little time in news reports. One of the most famous television legal correspondents was Frédéric Pottecher (1905–2001), a television star of the law, recognizable by his voice alone. He used inflection and drama to enhance his reports. His interview of Marie Besnard, suspected of being a serial killer, marked a whole generation. The case led to several legal reforms, three trials and, years later, an acquittal by the Cour d’Assises of the Gironde. Pottecher contributed to the public’s fascination with the case. The Institut national de l’audiovisuel (l’INA, the French institute of television archives) has footage of Pottecher’s interview, which remains as a monument to legal reporting. As a specialist of crime and trials, he also wrote television scenarios putting his legal expertise and sense of drama to use in fiction. Dominique Verdheilan is one of the last television legal correspondents today; he can be seen on France 2. The evening news now features police reporters and specialists on terrorism, reflecting how the channels interpret public concerns and participate in the shift of public attention.

French television must be understood as an organism of information and entertainment that started out as public service and has virtually remained so in spirit, despite the progressive development of private channels in the 1980s. In the United Kingdom and the United States, where television traditions began in a more independent context, and justice is seen as a distinct and autonomous system, writers have felt freer to question the law and justice, sometimes going so far as to criticize them. French television executives have often been appointed by the government (in 2010, during his presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Rémy Pflimlin as head of France Télévisions); and the channels, also all public until the late 1980s, are still very powerful decision makers. The institution of justice is seen as an appendage of government, not as an independent system. Television executives will say the French are not interested in legal content. This could be tied to their attitude to justice as an institution, but ratings of imported legal series appear to indicate that perhaps television decision makers are wrong.

When an important trial is held, an infanticide, a serial killer, a politician accused of corruption or tax fraud, public interest is obvious. From the early 2000s, a series of pedophilia cases shocked Belgium and France. Marc Dutroux and his wife were arrested and tried for sequestration, rape, and murder of minors in Belgium. Several errors in handling the exceptional case caused public indignation there and in France. Another case of pedophilia in Outreau, in the north of France, resulted in a number of trials and more damage to the image of the judicial institution as a young juge d’instruction, handling his first important case, was found to have been manipulated by one of the accused. The media had a field day with this judicial scandal, and the young juge was seen in the news on a regular basis. A legislative commission was set up at the end of 2005 to study the causes for the failures of the judicial institution in this case. Finally, a year after the Outreau trials, another pedophilia case involving 66 adults accused of molesting 45 children occurred in Angers, France. Although no judicial scandal was involved this time, what made this case important, outside of its magnitude, was the decision of the court to appoint a magistrat to be responsible for dealing with the media each day. He made daily statements to the press to explain what had happened at trial the day before and handed out documents explaining the law involved in the case. This started a trend in France that important popular trials would benefit from a court communications officer, a magistrat to deal with the media and assure that the public would be adequately informed.

These trials also revived the debate as to whether or not trials should be filmed to enhance the transparency of judicial proceedings and encourage confidence in the institution. Judge Elisabeth Linden, the chief judge of the Appeals Court in Anger, was appointed to chair a commission to study whether or not France should change its policy on cameras in the courtroom, and especially whether ordinary trials should be filmed. The commission interviewed judges and prosecutors, media professionals, French and foreign lawyers, former defendants, and representatives of victims’ groups. One question was whether a French version of Court TV12 should be considered. Although the commission did not come to a clear conclusion on what French policy on cameras in the courtroom or filming trials should be, it did call attention to the notion of the droit à l’oubli, the right to be forgotten, the right to make a fresh start. It is true that broadcasting trials can prolong the trauma of those involved when proceedings are over. However, filming trials does not necessarily mean automatically broadcasting the films. It could be up to the television stations,13 perhaps in collaboration with court communicators or the presiding judge, to decide which cases are of national interest, and filmed archives could be useful in the training of young lawyers and magistrats.

However, watching trials attracts a particular audience. Of late, the American Court TV has programed numerous courtroom dramas to fill their airtime. Organizing the filming of trials has proved to be complicated and long. Fictions have the advantage of not opening real wounds, hurting real people, but bringing legitimate and current questions of law and justice to public attention. Popular culture sources have the potential to play a major role in creating a greater level of public understanding of law and justice in France.

Literature Review and Further Sources

Although there has been extensive research on the representations of law and justice in various forms of popular culture (film, theatre, television, plastic arts) in the United States and Great Britain, few French scholars have given much attention to law in popular culture. Those French scholars who do work on popular culture, primarily, if not exclusively, concentrate on American productions. The majority of these tend to neglect representations of the law, except for example Nathalie Perreur, 2012 (The Practice, La justice à la barre).

Much literary work on the law in France has been created, for example in the work of Camus (The Stranger or The Fall), or in 19th-century novels in which the French notaire was a frequent figure, such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Balzac’s Comédie Humaine. Several lawyers and magistrats have published studies on law and literature, among them judges Antoine Garapon and Denis Salas. Salas airs a radio podcast called “La Plume dan la balance on Amicus Radio. Sandra Travers de Faultrier, who holds two doctorates, one in law and one in literature, is an intellectual property lawyer in Paris also teaching at the Institut of Political Sciences. Her many works on law in literature and the law of literature are major sources in this field. Chrisian Biet, a leading French scholar on theatre esthetics (University Paris 10, Nanterre) has written extensively on 16th to 18th century theatre and representations of justice in plays such as that of Marc-Antoine Legrand, Cartouche ou les voleurs (1721).

Another more popular area of research in France has been the representation of law and justice through image, and several research groups have organized conferences on cinema and the law. Jurists Lionel Miniato (University of Toulouse) and Magalie Flores-Lonjou (University La Rochelle) have produced a website and organized several conferences on law and cinema. Juge d’instruction, Christian Guéry published a work on law in several French and American films (2007) and on the image of lawyers in film, although not exclusively on French cinema.

There has been virtually no empirical research on the role of popular culture in the acquisition of legal knowledge. To date, only a two-year pilot study (2010–2012) at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme-Paris Nord examined what people knew of their legal system and what popular culture sources (media, film, television series) they watched and with what frequency. The majority of those responding to questionnaires distributed in five European countries (England, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy) and the United States gave clear evidence that television courtroom dramas played an important part in the acquisition of their legal knowledge. Those who watched the most series answered the questions on legal content the most correctly. The relatively small sample of this pilot study however would need further examination.

A later research project on law and performance was carried out from 2012 to 2015, organized by the research groups JILC (Justices, Images, Langues, Cultures) of University Paris 8 and HAR (Histoire de l’art et représentations) of University Paris 10 in the laboratory of the LABEX Arts H2H (Laboratoire excellence, financed by the French Ministry of Superior Education and by the Ministry of Culture).14 The collective nature of performance, whether in watching television or live performance, was deemed the essential element in the acquisition of a legal culture.

Further Reading

Ambroise-Rendu, A-C., Sécail, C., & Villez, B. (2010). Le Temps des medias: Justice [special issue]. Paris: Editions Nouveau Monde.Find this resource:

Biet, C. (2002). Droit et littérature sous l’ancien régime. Le jeu de la valeur et de la loi. Collection Lumière Classique. Paris: Champion.Find this resource:

Chambat-Houillon, M-F., & Lebtahi, Y. (2010). Télévision et justice. Les Cahiers de Circav. Paris: l’Harmattan.Find this resource:

Civard-Racinais, A. (1995). La Plume et la balance. Paris: Editions Kimé.Find this resource:

Comolli, J.-L. (2004). Voir et pouvoir: L’innocence perdue: Cinéma, télévision, fiction, documentaire. Paris: Verdier.Find this resource:

Garapon, A. (1997). Bien Juger. Paris: Odile Jacob.Find this resource:

Garapon, A., & Salas, D. (2008). Imaginer la loi: Le droit dans la littérature. Collection Le Bien Commun. Paris: Michalon.Find this resource:

Guéry, C. (2007). Justices à l’écran. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.Find this resource:

Guéry, C. (2011). Les avocats au cinema. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.Find this resource:

Pellerin, L. (2005). L’avocat pris au piège de l’imaginaire. Retrieved from

Perreur, N. (2012). The Practice: La justice à la barre. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.Find this resource:

Salas, D. (2013). Kafka: Le combat avec la loi. Collection Le Bien Commun. Paris: Michalon.Find this resource:

Soulez-Larivière, D. (1993). Du cirque mediatico-judiciaire et des moyens d’en sortir. Paris: Seuil.Find this resource:

Témine, H. (2012). La Défense dans la peau. Paris: Stock.Find this resource:

Travers de Faultrier, S. (2010). Identité-jugement. Paris: Les Cahiers de la Justice.Find this resource:

Travers de Faultrier, S. (2005). Gide: L’assignation à être. Collection Le Bien Commun. Paris: Michalon.Find this resource:

Villez, B. (2009a). Television and the legal system. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Villez, B. (2009b). French television lawyers in Avocats et Associés. In M. Asimow (Ed.), Lawyers in your living room: Law on television (pp. 275–286). Chicago: American Bar Association.Find this resource:

Villez, B. (2014a). Law & order/New York Police Judiciaire: La Justice en prime-time. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.Find this resource:

Villez, B. (2014b). Engrenages: Antilegalism and French realism. In M. Asimow, K. Brown, & D. Papke (Eds.), Law and popular culture: International perspectives (pp. 323–336). Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K.: Cambridge Scholars.Find this resource:

Villez, B. (2016). Mafiosa, monstrous beauty. In M. Buonanno (Ed.), Women behaving badly: Anti-heroines in crime tv storytelling. Bristol, U.K.: Intellect.Find this resource:

Villez, B., & Rolando, V. (2016). France. In P. Robson & J. Shultz (Eds.), A transnational study of law & justice on tv (pp. 79–98). Oxford: Hart.Find this resource:

References (French television in general)

Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA). (2006). La représentation de la diversité des origines et des cultures à la télévision et à la radio. Bilan 2005. Paris: CSA.Find this resource:

Delavaud, G. (2005). L’art de la télévision: Histoire et esthétique de la dramatique télévisée (1950–1965). Brussells: De Boeck.Find this resource:

de Lestrade, J.-X. (Director). (2003). Un Coupable Idéal [documentary]. Centre National de la Cinématographie.

Glévarec, H. (2012). La Sériephilie: Sociologie d’un attachment culturel. Paris: Ellipses.Find this resource:

McCabe, J., & Villez, B. (2012). French television [Special issue]. Critical studies in television, 7(2).Find this resource:

Veyrat-Masson, I., & Sauvage, M. (2012). Histoire de la television française. Paris: Editions du nouveau monde.Find this resource:

Veyrat-Masson, I. (2008). Télévision et histoire: La confusion des genres, docudramas, docufictions et fictions du reel. Brussells: De Boeck.Find this resource:

Veyrat-Masson, I. (2000). Quand la télévision explore le temps. Paris: Fayard.Find this resource:

Villez, B. (2009a). Television and the legal system. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Villez, B., & Rolando, V. (2016). France. In P. Robson & J. Shultz (Eds.), A transnational study of law & justice on tv (pp. 79–98). Oxford: Hart.Find this resource:


(1.) Lawyers’ current robes date back to the 18th century, but they have been wearing robes since the mid-1500s.

(2.) The Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature, located in Bordeaux, is the school where fifth-year law students who have passed a competitive admissions examination enter to become magistrats (judges or prosecutors). Law students wanting to become lawyers go to one of the many “iej” or instituts d’études judiciaires, where they prepare for the bar exams.

(3.) According to their rank at the end of their studies, they will choose from a list of available positions, either for the type of position or the geographical area.

(4.) In French criminal trials, victims and their families can become parties to the trial as the partie civile. They have their own lawyer who can also plead and address questions to the court. In this way, they are allowed to take advantage of the criminal proceeding to request reparation, avoiding a separate civil proceeding following the penal trial.

(5.) Robert Badinter, a magistrate, was Minister of Justice and a fervent opponent of the death penalty. He contributed greatly to its abolishment and is a frequent guest on talk shows.

(6.) See also for example, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 series, The Staircase [video]; or Fred Biamonti and Olivier Lamour’s 2001 documentary, Huntsville, la colonie pénitentiaire [video].

(7.) Villez and Rolando (2016) was an empirical study of all representations of justice (all stages of the judicial process, all forms of televisual representations) on all French TV channels during the month of November 2014. The statistics (type of shows, their origin, etc.) can be found in Villez and Rolando (2016, pp. 85–95).

(8.) Consult, for example, the interview of Christine Bouillet, director of Fictions on M6, podcast “La Justice à l’œil,” on Amicus Radio.

(9.) The judge is a woman; the various versions of the series included the name of the main character followed by the words “the judge is a woman,” as in “Alice Nevers, The Judge Is a Woman.”

(10.) There are three categories of offences in French law, and each category has its own level of jurisdiction. Contreventions—violations or petty misdemeanors—are tried in the Tribunal de police (one judge, no jury); délits—ordinary to gross misdemanors—are tried in the Tribunal correctionnel (where there is a presiding judge and sometimes assistant judges, no juries); and crimes, or felonies, are tried in the Cour d’assises (a high criminal court where there is a presiding judge and two assistant judges, and six jurors sitting on either side of the judges, all of whom deliberate together at the end of the trial).

(11.) France 2 is the main public channel, belonging to the group France Télévision a public company, managing production and broadcasting of the public channels.

(12.) An American cable channel created in 1991 to broadcast live trials across the country. The initial project was difficult to execute, and the channel began to broadcast a considerable number of fictional courtroom reruns. The channel is now called TruTV.

(13.) See the case of Spain, for example, where all trials are filmed, but only the national television station determines what should be broadcast or not. See in Villez, B., 2010, La caméra dans le prétoire: Information, transparence, interaction? Les Cahiers du Circav, 21 [Special Issue] Télévision et Justice.

(14.) Presented at the International Conference “Performing the Law” Cour de Cassation, Paris, December 2–3, 2015.