Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Juge de Paix at Najac


If this were were a Tuesday we would have a 2-1 chance of being less solitary on our green garden seat, where laziness and no work has tempted us to remain chatting or somnolent since breakfast time. A couple, at least, of small round tin tables would be set in the shade of the acacia trees, and peasants in sable dress – black boots, black trousers, black blouses, black hats, black beards, black eyes - would be seated drinking coffee from long glasses, or beer –enlivened by a dose of carbolic acid gas in Potato’s bottling establishment over the road –or red wine which is brought in casks from vineyards lying twenty miles to the south. The country reckons little of those strange aperatifs of the French town-dweller, those drinks of daring hue and astonishing taste which are used either to appetize or to minimize the results of appetizing; like the device of an impecunious young man who used to calm his tailor’s clamors for settlement by ordering more clothes. At one of the tables of funereally clad peasants a jaundiced-faced townsman, dressed in straw hat, tail coats and trousers of black and white check, would be talking earnestly and with authority. The peasants are litigants, the townsman a barrister. They would be waiting, we would be waiting, for the juge de paix. Najac is a chef-lieu-de canton, we have our fortnightly courts.

The juge de paix comes presently, round about half-past ten, walking with the jerky decision of celebrity. He looks not unlike Monsieur Poincare, but it is a Monsieur Poincare drawn by Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland, and the aggressive eyebrows of the French first minister are here pruned into gentleness. We all get up an follow him in a ragged procession to the corner of the triangular place and thence downhill a dozen buildings to the Mairie. The juge de paix is not quite the equivalent of our Justice of the Peace, he is more domestic: nor does he handle crime. Judge of the peace indeed he is not:  he is a human olive branch; his crest is a dove; his very questions – curious, naïve legal questions, French equivalents for the famous “Who is Connie Gilchrist?” – have a coo in them.

Maupassant has immortalized the juge de paix in Le Cas de Madame Luneau and Tribunaux Rustique. To an English reader these rustic comedies of law may appear exaggerations, yet although Maupassant died thirty years ago, and although in these thirty years the world has made unbelievable advances, our juge de paix might well have taken lessons from those invented by the French novelist. The judge’s opening in Tribunaux Rustiques,  “Madame Bascule, articulez vos griefs,” would seem to us at first glance written for farce had our juge de paix not used the identical phrase often enough: so, too, the judge’s exaggerated simplicity in La cas de Madame Luneau.

“HIPPOLOYTE: Je m'eclaire, monsieur le juge. Or, qu'elle voulait un enfant et qu'elle me demandait ma participation. Je ne fis pas de difficultes, et elle me promit cent francs. . .
“LE JUGE DE PAIX: Je ne vous comprends pas du tout. Vous dites qu'elle voulait un enfant? Comment?  Quel genre d'enfant? Un enfant pour l'adopter?
“HIPPOLYTE: Non, monsieur le juge, un neuf
‘LE JUGE DE PAIX:  Qu'entendez vous par ces mots: 'Un neuf?”

As a general rule the juge de paix does not hold that serious angle to the law which we would consider correct in an English magistrate. To some extent the judge seems to take both the law he is administering as well as the pleader as a kind of joke; he is like a humorous master settling a difference between a cook and a housemaid, neither of whom  he is willing to loose. Contrasting with this humor, sometimes tart on the part of the judge, is the ceremony of the court in which these rough-handed litigants – some of who can only speak in patois, losing themselves in long-winded explanations – are dubbed officially le Sieur Lachose or le Sieur Untel; and the judge sometimes uses these pretentious sounding titles to whip up his satire.

To add to the strange quality of these village courts of justice is the passionate eloquence of the barristers. These are two as a rule, brought at some expense from Francheville, one a stolid rustic sort of a man who does generally confine himself top a blunt exposition of his clients case: the other, the most admired, the tail-coated, rather jaundiced individual before mentioned. He has a gift for pathos – and bathos too. Eloquence in France is a serious affair. The oration of Sergeant Buzfuz for Mrs. Bardell pales before some of the jaundiced barrister’s copia verborum dealing with the matter of a branch illegally cut from a tree or a gate left swinging open from malice: to hear him on the depredations of an errant goat was to be flooded with as much emotion as would have served many an actor for Mark Anthony weeping over the body of Caesar.

The council chamber has a large green baize-covered table at which the councilors of the village seat themselves solemnly and do their simple best to retard progress. Here generally one can find Raymond asleep, his bulging forehead couched upon a pile of municipal literature, snoring away his 2000 francs per annum. The chamber of justice is small and white-washed. A railing divides it in two, on the far side of which is the judge’s table, also green covered, raised on a dais. To his left a lower table serves the clerk of the court by whose side a couple of chairs seat the barristers, who here plead without robes or bands. Nor does the judge himself mount signs of office, he sits rather plumply rubicund, half bored, half sardonic, with a large wen just appearing where his hair is thinning. There are chairs, half a dozen or so, at the disposal of an audience, but usually there is no audience. The litigants gather on the landing of the Mairie, and creep bashfully as their names are called by the greffier.

“Le Sieur Anselm Chose contre Madame Paulette Maschin, “ etc.

The litigants are of several varieties. There is the chronic plaintiff, usually a woman; there is the chronic defendant, usually a man. Both are egoists, the first too conscious of her neighbor’s vices, the second too unconscious of his neighbor’s rights. A type of the first was remarkable enough to be worthy of notice. She was an ex-nun who had left her convent to marry, but who has remained a devotional bigot. She was a lank, lean woman, with a pallid face ridged like plough land and two black pearls of eyes. She crossed herself whenever she passed the Hotel Sestrol because Raymond had said in jest that he and his family were atheists; but not Christian charity disturbed her conscience. She snapped into law at the slightest pretext, the terror of her neighbors.

Both types of litigants are well known to the juge de paix, who greets them with a rough grunt something like that of a hoarse pig:

“Euh, euh! Qu'est-ce que vous ronge cette fois-ci.”

There is the litigant who talks as though there can be no question on the other side, and the litigant who hardly dares to state his own case; there is the amicable litigant who can be seen drinking with his opponent before entering the Mairie and who has another drink with him to toasty the decision whichever way it may be; there is the sly litigant who tries clownishly to hide the essential facts, but who is almost invariably brought to book with acid comments by monsieur le juge; there is the hysterical witness; the silent witness; the loquacious. To all the judge is a sort of legal Father O’Flynn, sometimes forced to translate his decisions into patois when his suitors cannot understand the French. But often the litigants who do know French are unable to understand the legal form of the judge’s summing up and stand silent, perplexed and gaping at the bar until the greffier chases them on to the landing; where they still hang about wondering how things have actually been decided between them.

The more serious village affairs do not come before the juge de paiz, they go to the tribunal at Francheville. Sometimes, however, the judge is an echo of the Francheville court, for instance, in the case of assault, the victim pleads for damages in the village after the aggressor has been punished officially in town. Thus the aggressor  pays double law expenses. Yet murder did come to us, both present and past. A girl of eighteen, turned out by her uncle, having given birth all alone hidden in a hayloft, strangled her illegitimate child. The baker was furious. He waved his thin fingers under the nose of Potato ( a local bottler, the blacksmith’s brother)who being fat, was inclined to leniency. The baker, who had smashed a comrade’s foot for a careless insult, was self-righteously indignant with this half-distraught baby killer.

“We must finish with these self-taken liberties,” he coughed hoarsely. “No pity. Off with her head.”

But she was acquitted. The French look with what appears to the English a lenient eye upon murder. Murder they seem to consider a crime only in dastardly cases. Give murder an epithet, tag it on to some perturbation of spirit, and the slayer escapes. Love, jealousy, hate, anger, fear, political passion, or even commercial interest, are held to be spiritual cyclones which acting on normal humanity can whirl it outside itself –beside himself, as we say – and so a crime committed outside of humanity is considered almost outside the law.

A curious feature of psychology this, that these French who are so primitively mosaic in their politics – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – should have travelled so far away from that boasted basis of human security, a life for a life. They do not hold that a misdeed committed in individual frenzy is to be balanced by another misdeed committed in communal revenge; they do not hold that for murder, the last unpardonable theft, restitution can be made by a forfeiture in kind. Still, we must think the French very lenient in murder. It was a question of café debate whether Landru, the modern Bluebeard, would not get off. A barrister, playing with his eloquence upon the heart-strings of a jury –which one must confess often seems to carry emotionalism beyond the limits of even a farce- has released how many assassins back into society. It is true that murder rarely becomes a habit. But we remember a satirical article in a French paper proving the only person one might not murder with impunity to be a total stranger, since no sentimental excuse could be found for murdering him. .  .

The juge de paix at Najac does not touch on such grave matters as these. He travels from canton to canton, an affable, slightly pompous, slightly sardonic, peace-maker, an ambulating olive branch dipped in vinegar.

“Exposez vos griefs,” says monsieur le juge

No comments:

Post a Comment