David Pannick’s Times column today is about the most famous French advocate of the age, Jacques Vergès, a repellent yet compelling figure whose political extremism and cynicism make radical British lawyers look like naive lackeys of the establishment.
He first came to my attention when I was living in France in the mid-eighties and he defended Klaus Barbie, the “butcher of Lyon” in his trial for crimes against humanity. The strategy Vergès employed in that trial was to accuse France of crimes against humanity in its colonies and to argue that it had no moral right to judge Barbie; in essence, to accuse liberal democracy of a hypocrisy so deep as to rob it any moral authority – an argument all extreme leftists use. I think what’s repellent about him is not the people he defends – no lawyer has a problem with the idealism of those who wish to defend unattractive clients to ensure justice is done and injustice avoided. My only difficulty with what I call “defenceism” (that attitude among some criminal lawyers that suggests the state oppresses whenever it prosecutes, that miscarriages of justice are legion and that lawyers should only ever defend) is that it’s sometimes hypocritical itself, since some defenceists want to avoid defending those accused of rape. No, I think what makes people uncomfortable about Vergès is his utter cynicism about law. He doesn’t seem to believe in law as a system for doing right or making human society more moral – but simply and solely in speaking up for those who would destroy law and morality. His book, La Justice est un Jeu, perfectly captures what’s fascinating and replusive about him: in elegant French he tells tales of France’s past crimes, arguing that no court has a firm place from which to judge and that law is a hollow joke. Pannick mentions the missing years of his life: one has to wonder whether he spent the seventies perfecting his political and moral nihilism.
After all that, you’ll be surprised to hear that I can’t help admiring him in a perverse way. You have to be impressed by the way he takes pride in his own scandalousness. He certainly does what he does without fear or favour; and in his own indirect, perhaps unintended way he does serve the public. He’s certainly an intriguing figure. By the way, I once heard him arguing in a TV interview that france should abandon the inquisitorial system of criminal justice and adopt the Englsih adversarial system, which he thinks is fairer to defendants.