Arendt, Durkheim and Voltaire called to testify at Paris attacks trial

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This has been a special week at the November 2015 terror trial, as the three state prosecutors prepared the ground for their demands for punishment, delivered on Friday. The French newspapers have been united in their praise of the prosecution team. But it was a far from flawless performance.

"It is difficult for us, who live in a secular society, to understand absolute conviction," chief prosecuting magistrate Camille Hennetier told the court in her final summing-up.

"When fanaticism has infected a spirit, the disease is practically incurable. What can you say to someone who tells you that he would rather obey God than man, and that he is sure of entering heaven if he slits your throat?"

Despite the chillingly contemporary resonance, that last sentence is Voltaire, taken word-for-word from his 1764 Dictionary of Philosophy, under the entry for "Fanaticism".

Earlier, it was Hennetier's co-prosecutor, Nicolas Braconnay, who quoted Hannah Arendt to the effect that extremist ideology can result in the distancing of an individual from normal moral constraints, even from basic human decency.

Philosophers, sociologists and other spooks

On the question of the value of prison sentences in the reform of those sentenced, we were reminded of Émile Durkheim's insistence on the necessary relation between punishment and social reinsertion.

Camille Hennetier pessimistically wondered if there was any hope for a change of heart among the most ideologically committed of the men before the court.

"We are without illusion on the limits of what can be achieved by the prison system," she said, echoing the philosopher Michel Foucault.

It was all very high falutin'.

The 14 accused present in court could be forgiven for missing some of the details.

We are, after all, a long way from Molenbeek, the working-class Brussels suburb which was home to several of the Paris attacks accused. With the exception of Mohamed Bakkali, who has used his time in jail to obtain a degree in sociology, the men in the box generally have weak academic backgrounds.

In fact, this performance by the prosecutors has not primarily been intended for the accused, but for the tribunal which will, later this month, have to decide on the guilt or innocence of each man, and punish them accordingly.

Back down to earth with a bang

No one had any difficulty understanding the third prosecutor, Nicolas Le Bris.

He spoke of the "deluge of metal bolts" which shredded bodies; of the "piles of the dead and dying", "wallowing in their own blood"; of the "scythed" victims falling "like dominoes".

And there was worse, in terms of the graphic language chosen by the co-prosecutor. The words were, he assured us, those of the survivors themselves. Indeed, they were instantly recognisable to those in court who have heard them before. Of course, the rhetorical strategy was clearly to prepare for the later demand of the maximum penalties allowed by law.

But at what cost to the survivors sitting on the public benches?

The power of personal testimony

Last October, when a victim of the Bataclan attack described the realisation that her leg was no longer attached to her body, that her face had been ripped open by a bullet, and that she risked choking on her own shattered teeth, the impact of that personal testimony was of an indescribable power.

The use of the same evidence by a third party, especially in the presence of the original witness . . . and the woman in question was, indeed, in the courtroom on Friday and heard her injuries described by another . . . is at the very least questionable, if not reprehensible.

Centrist newspaper Le Monde says the three prosecutors this week set new standards in a profession in which verbal brilliance is the norm. "A performance of extraordinary judicial excellence," the paper says.

Right-wing Le Figaro believes the 15-hour summing-up of this vast case was of a quality which will mark French legal history indelibly.

And they may be right.

But neither Le Monde nor Le Figaro asked the opinion of Amandine, the 38-year-old woman who is that Bataclan survivor. Neither did prosecuting magistrate Nicolas Le Bris. They should have.

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