France – The Judge De Paix

IT is now twenty-five years since I made the acquaintance of M. D-, juge de paix of a canton in the Jura. We came to know each other in this way. I had hired a carriage for the three hours’ drive from the superbly situated little town of Morez on the Bienne to the still more superbly situated little bishopric of St. Claude. As I never travel alone when agreeable company is to be had, I asked my friends to find me travelling companions, which they did. The elderly gentleman and his wife, bound like myself to St. Claude, immediately on arrival introduced me to their newly married daughter and her husband, lately named juge de paix of the district. With characteristic French amiability, Monsieur and Madame D- set themselves the task not only of showing me the ancient little city and its surroundings, but its curious and time-honoured industries, the turnery and wood-carving done at home, each craftsman working under his own roof.

The pleasant and profitable intercourse of those few days ripened into friendship. A few years later I visited my friends in another romantic corner of the same department, Monsieur D- having been nominated to a less remote canton.

The juge de paix, it is hardly necessary to say, is a creation of the Revolution. ln his person is represented one of the most sweeping reforms ever effected by pen and ink. The administration of justice was summarily transferred from a privileged and venal class to responsible servants of the State.

And here a word as to the title. This modestly paid interpreter of the law was thus named because his mission in a great measure was to conciliate, to prevent lawsuits by advice and impartial intervention. This cheap, simple, and paternal jurisdiction was instituted in the special interests of the peasant and the workman, formerly often ruined by the multiplicity of tribunals and rapacity of notaries and lawyers.

It must be remembered that from time immemorial the rural population in France has been a propertied class, hence the perpetual recurrence to litigation. Under the ancien regime, as today, Jacques Bonhomme and his neighbours would be at daggers drawn about limitations of newly acquired field, damages done by stray cattle, or some such matter. And the cheapness of going to law in these days may perhaps have fostered a litigious propensity. Certainly these rural magistrates have plenty to do. The juge de paix is appointed by the State, he receives a yearly stipend of three or four thousand francs, with a small retiring pension at sixty. As he must be thoroughly versed in the Code Civil, his services do not appear to be adequately remunerated, especially when we compare his office and its emoluments to those of the percepteur, or tax collector, the subject of my next sketch. On this point a French friend writes to me : “Percepteurs, even of the first and second grades (i.e. lower), are certainly better paid than the juge de paix. But the former is only a fiscal agent, whilst the latter is a magistrate charged with very varied and delicate duties. He must have a thorough knowledge of law ; the percepteur, on the contrary, need only be a man of ordinary education, for this reason l do not hesitate to place him below the other, although his services are much better remunerated.”

The responsibilities of the juge de paix are strictly limited. He can sentence to short terms of imprisonment and to fines not exceeding two hundred francs, the next stage in administration being that of the Tribunal caritionnel de l’arrondissz ment. The arrondissement is that division of a department presided over by a sous- préfet. In cases of burglary, accident, murder, suicide, arson, the juge de paix is immediately sent for. It is his business to seal the papers of defunct persons, and to represent the law at those conseils de famille, or family councils, I describe elsewhere.

The especial function of the justice de paix regarded as a system is intermediary and preventive rather than judiciary. Disputes are always settled by friendly arbitration when possible. Country folks, as I have said, have a marked proclivity for the procés verbal, in other words, going to law. Were, indeed, a rural judge paid according to his cases, he would die a millionaire.

As we might expect, small unenclosed properties are a fruitful source of discord ; as we should certainly not expect among so easy-going a people, that unruly member the tongue is another Diffamation, or the calling each other names, is constantly bringing neighbours into court, some of the scenes enacted being ludicrous in the extreme.

Indeed, my friend assured me that the maintenance of gravity was often the most arduous and trying part of his sittings. But, he added, echoing the sentiment of the immortal Bagnet, ” discipline must be maintained.”

The minimum fine for a case of backbiting and slandering is two francs, a large sum in Jacques Bonhomme’s eyes. The mulct, however, does not prevent his womankind from calling each other “base and degrading Tildas ” at the next opportunity.

With my friend’s young wife I attended a séance, or sitting, of the justice de paix, an experience not to be omitted by those who would study the French peasant.

In the centre of the plain, airy court sat the judge, wearing his robes of office, high-crowned hat with silver band, advocate’s black gown and white lappets. On his right sits his greffier, or clerk, also wearing judicial hat and gown ; on his left, his suppléant, or coadjutor, representing the public prosecutor. This last is an unpaid official. By the judge lies a copy of the Code Civil. This volume is not used in swearing witnesses, the only formula exacted being the words, ” Par Dieu, les hommes, et la vérité” (” by God, man, and the truth “). Above the chair of office was suspended crucifix, on the occasion of my visit several typical cases came before the judge. One of these concerned boundary marks. The disputants were both peasants—the first, a grave, taciturn middle-aged man ; the other, a voluble young fellow, whose eloquence on his own behalf M. D—had great difficulty in repressing. The affair was promptly disposed of. On that day fortnight, at eight o’clock in the morning, the litigants were bidden to appear on the con-tested borderland, when the rival claims would be adjusted by the judge in person.

I also heard an old farmer in blue blouse plead his own cause with the shrewdness and pertinence of a counsel. The bone of contention was a contract, the other party, according to his showing, not having fulfilled his obligations. Property handed down from father to son proves an education in many senses, not only sharpening the wits, but rendering glib the tongue.

It was interesting to note that no matter how noisy or self-asserting might be the litigants, the majesty of the law was ever readily acknowledged. The simple ” You can retire ” of the magistrate sufficed. Very rarely, I was informed, is it necessary to appeal to a gendarme.

A, juge de paix is sometimes confronted with problems only to be solved after the rough-and-ready methods of King Solomon or the equally subtle lawgiver of Barataria. From the strictest impartiality he must never deviate, hence the almost affectionate respect hemming him round. One perpetual surprise in France is the prevailing intellectuality, the general atmosphere of culture. These small officials—M. D. is one of several rural magistrates I have known—are not only skilled in law and jurisprudence, but often possess considerable literary and artistic tastes. Cut off from the stimulus of great centres, travel, and congenial society, they do not allow themselves to vegetate, maintaining on the contrary an alert interest in matters lying wholly outside their own immediate venue.

All fairly well educated Frenchmen have a good know-ledge of the national literature, due to early training. The love of the beautiful, so universally found throughout France, may, I think, be traced to the local museum. Hardly any town of a few thousand souls is without its art collection and the influence of such object-lessons within easy reach is incalculable.

One,juge de paix I know had visited England, and amongst other experiences had seen Irving in some of his most famous rôles. This gentleman could have passed, I dare say, an examination in Walter Scott and Dickens, darling topics on which, alas ! he could only discourse during the long vacation. From August to September he had a cover laid for him at the chateau whenever English guests were staying there, which was pretty often, the owners being good friends of England.

Another rural magistrate of my acquaintance has long been a warm advocate of arbitration and of the entente cordiale. Two years ago he joined a local branch of the French Arbitration Society.

” The bicycle, the bicycle ! ” he said to me. ” Ah ! there we have an admirable engine of propaganda. Miles and miles are members of the arbitration societies thereby enabled to cover, reaching out-of-the-way spots, and getting at the peasants as it is impossible to do by means of lectures and public meetings. A friendly chat over a glass of wine, a talk in the fields, that is the best means of obtaining the countryman’s confidence.”

The speaker in question had private means, and with his young wife took holiday trips in the long vacation ; the pair kept a servant, and enjoyed comparative luxury. Of the many juges de paix I have known only one or two lived on such a scale. And the fact must never be lost sight of, prestige in France does not depend upon material circumstances.

Absence of pretence characterizes official life. A rural magistrate is not looked down upon because his wife happens to be her own cook, housemaid, and nurse. No word in the French lexicon precisely answers to our own ” gentility ” or its unspoken meaning. We do not in these days speak of living genteelly, but of doing as other people do, which amounts to the same thing.

The French phrase comme il faut indicates something wholly different. To dress, behave, keep house comme il faut has reference only to the befitting, the adhesion to strict propriety. Appearance is not bent knee to, and if thrift is apt to degenerate into parsimony, and much that we regard as absolutely essential to comfort and wellbeing is sacrificed to the habit, we must yet whole heartedly admire the simple, unambitious, dignified life of the small French official.