Suppose you’re a judge hearing a civil case. You have no information other than what the lawyers for the two sides tell you. First, the lawyer for the plaintiff makes his presentation, calmly and coolly explaining his position, delineating the facts point by point without raising his voice. Then the lawyer for the respondent gets up and goes ballistic. He seems barely able to control himself, talking loudly and rapidly with lots of frantic hand gestures, going on and on but without discussing the actual case, just expressing outrage that anyone could have the effrontery to accuse his client of wrongdoing.
Who are you going to believe?
If you are from an Anglophone culture, the answer is obvious: you’re going to believe the lawyer for the plaintiff. But, based on my observations as a long-time Paris resident, if you are French, you will very likely side with the partner from Howell, Bellow and Stahl.
This is a common characteristic of French (or perhaps generally Latin) behavior that bewilders me. The tactic seems to be: get on a high horse, keep up the bluster, avoid the facts and somehow everyone will think you’re right. Sticking, for the moment, with the legal world, here are a few examples:
• Quite some time ago, I saw a TV interview with a spotlight-hungry Parisian lawyer (who shall remain nameless in case he’s also libel-suit-hungry). He was defending an international terrorist who had already been convicted in absentia. The point he was trying to make was that the heartless mass murderer in question, although admittedly guilty, was being treated unfairly under the terms of his detention. But instead of acting like a level-headed legal expert who had learned that his client was being denied basic rights, his tone and demeanor resembled that of a four-year-old who had learned that he was being denied dessert. If there were a Nobel Prize in Histrionic Huffiness he would have been a contender.
• A few years later, a prominent French politician (who shall remain nameless because he’s still, amazingly, in office) took a similar approach in a televised statement in which he was supposedly answering charges of fraud and corruption. Again, all he did was throw a hissy fit and blather on and on, pursuing a line of argument that made up in symmetry what it lacked in logic, namely:
1) He shouldn’t be accused of these crimes, because…
2) He was above suspicion, because…
3) He was who he was, and therefore…
4) He was above suspicion, and therefore…
5) He shouldn’t be accused of these crimes.
I remember thinking that he could have saved a lot of time and effort by just getting a tattoo on his forehead saying “I’m lying.”
On the one occasion when I have personally appeared in a court of law, which happened to be in Paris, my own lawyer did the same thing. My coop was suing our former building administrator for shamelessly pocketing money that was supposed to go toward upkeep and repairs and so forth, and we had hired a lawyer to represent us. While we were sitting on the benches at the Palais de Justice waiting for our case to be called, she was perfectly calm, advising us on possible outcomes and what the next step in the process would be. But as soon as we were standing in front of the judge, she went into meltdown mode, becoming so agitated you could have churned butter in the pockets of her robe. I thought we were going to need a tranquilizer dart to get her out of there.
It must be a technique they teach in French law school for getting the judges’ attention and sympathy, kind of like soccer players angling for a penalty shot by writhing and grimacing as though they’ve been mortally wounded when an opposing player comes within three feet of them. (Which, by the way, also seems to be more of a Latin thing — check out this clip from Chile.)
This is a phenomenon that extends beyond the courtroom (and the football stadium), as I learned last year when I was inadvertently shortchanged at my local supermarket. I had just gone to an ATM and taken out two 50-euro notes, one of which I used to buy some groceries. But the cashier, who, shall we say, was not the sharpest carrot peeler in the discount bin, gave me change for a 20. I tried pointing out the error, but after a short conversation, it was clear that I wasn’t going to convince her. So I offered to come back when her shift ended, when presumably (if she didn’t make any more mistakes that day) she would have a €30 surplus. Sensible as it was, she seemed surprised by this proposal but agreed to it and told me that she got off work at 6pm. When I came back she had a tenner and a twentier in her hand ready to give me. So it all ended well, but get this: her explanation was, “I didn’t think you were serious about it, because you didn’t make a fuss.”
If that’s what constitutes sincerity in France, then I saw a gravely, grimly serious guy – the Cotton Mather of modern-day Parisian society – being very sincere at that same supermarket just a couple of weeks ago. I was waiting in a long checkout line when the security guard stopped a kind of scruffy-looking fellow with a backpack, apparently on suspicion of shoplifting. The guard quietly and politely asked the gentleman to open his backpack for inspection, but he refused to comply, instead launching into a frenzied, rabid tirade that he apparently thought would “prove” his innocence.
The thrust of his argument was rather weak, i.e., that he shouldn’t be suspected of being a thief because he didn’t, by his own reckoning, look like one (keep up the bluster, avoid the facts). It was quite an admirable performance, actually. The guy seemed to be able to yell continuously without inhaling. His monologue, delivered at metal-singer volume and auctioneer speed, sounded something like this:
“What? You think I stole something? You think I’m a thief? Look at me! Do I look like a thief? No I don’t! You know why? ’Cause I’m not a thief! What’s a thief look like? Not like me! I didn’t steal anything! You think I did? Why? Because I’m a thief? I’m not! Do I look like one? No! You think I do? If I was a thief what would I look like? A thief? What do they look like? Me? Thief? Look! Huh? No!” etc., etc., and on and on.
Whole minutes went by while I waited to check out, and when I left he still hadn’t let up. For all I know, he’s still there, pleading his case. (“How many times do I have to tell you I’m not a thief? A million? Okay, I will: I’m no thief! Not me! Do I look like one?… ”)
In fairness, maybe the guy didn’t look like a thief. But he sure as enfer sounded like one.Favorite
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