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Avocate Irrespectueuse by Gisèle Halimi

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

2002, 2020, Editions Plon

Avocate Irrespectueuse (Disrespectful Lawyer), Not available in English.

If you're like my mother was, as soon as you see a title in French at the top of the post you'll say, "I'm not reading that one, it's in French!" But please, even if you don't read the post, watch the short video below. If you don't know Gisèle Halimi, (I didn't before reading this book), you'll want to!

Watch this short video in English:

Gisele Halimi (1927-2020) was a Franco-Tunisian lawyer at the bar of Paris, a militant feminist and a politician. In her memoirs, Avocate Irrespectueuse (Disrespectful Lawyer), she discusses her career as a lawyer and principles which guided her life. Believing everyone has a right to a fair trial, regardless of the nature of the crime, she defended Algerian independence fighters during the Algerian War, and condemned the unlawful torture practiced by the French government. In 1972, she won an important case which eventually led to the legalisation of abortion, successfully defending a 16-year-old girl who was the first to escape condemnation for what was then a crime in France.

The lawyer against the system

Very early, I saw the lawyer, advocatus, as someone who fought against the judicial apparatus which can swallow up the accused who is alone against the society judging him. For me…each criminal—no matter how monstrous he may appear—has an irreducible core of humanity inside himself. This core looks like it has disappeared but in fact is just hidden by his behavior. (129)

What is a just punishment?

A just punishment never eliminates. The law should open a future to the condemned. And take into account that the dehumanisation of prison leads to the total exclusion from society of a human being. Imprisonment, essentially a temporary state, should represent a transition; after the transgression, organize the recovery by society of the strayed person. For the former criminal and for society. (137)

Napoleon on law and principles

Halimi says that in her naïveté she at first believed that for justice to be done, all that was needed on the part of a lawyer was knowledge of the law and principles. She quickly saw this was not the case, and quotes Napoleon at the writing of the French Civil Code: "Principles…yes, use the word “principles”. It sounds good and doesn’t commit to anything." (86)

Napoleon on lawyers

As long as I have a sword at my side, I want to be able to cut the tongue off any lawyer who uses it against the government. (128)


During trials of Algerian Independence fighers, Halimi saw that there was no justice, the trials were just a charade, and the French military made all the decisions.

She recounts a meeting in 1956 with Robert Lacoste, the French resident minister of Algeria, who had turned his powers over to the French military. Her goal was to protest the practice of torturing members of the Algerian resistance she was defending. But Lacoste had no sense of any sort of justice for them. “They’re snakes, all snakes, those terrorists, I’ll smash them like snakes…like this, with my heel…Yes, you’ll see, I’ll smash that handful of rebels. And I’ve given the army the power to do it…”

Halimi quotes from Torture: Cancer of Democracy, Pierre Vidal-Naquet

Can the institutions, army, justice, and press of a democratic country be corroded in a few short years by the practice of torture, and by the silence and lies surrounding vital topics, which call into question the very conception the West says it holds of humanity?

(La Torture dans la République, 1954-1962, Paris, Editions de Minuit, 1998, my translation)

This post does not do justice to all the interesting and sometimes heartbreaking cases discussed in Halimi's book. But I have to draw the line somewhere...!

On the lighter side...French red tape for lawyers...

Halimi tells a funny story of the requirements for being accepted into the Order of Lawyers of Paris (which I assume and hope are no longer applicable!). It was common practice to have your office in your home, but there was an inspection to make sure all the regulations were respected. One of the rules was that no couch could be in the room being used as an office. The original purpose of this rule was to keep (almost exclusively male) lawyers from being tempted to accept “on the couch” payment from women clients. To get around this rule, Halimi tells how she had to hide her couch in the kitchen (the apartment only had one main room) until the inspection was over; then she put it back. (115)


…whoever comes into the world to upset nothing deserves neither respect nor patience… René Char (138)

For more on Gisèle Halimi, read this article.

56 views2 comments

2 commenti

18 mar 2021

Was Lacoste upset about the massacre of the harkis or was it just a feeling that the FLN shouldn't have revolted against the French government?

Mi piace
18 mar 2021
Risposta a

I'm sure he was upset about it, but the feeling I got from the passage was that he considered the Algerians as intrinsically lower life forms than the French.

Mi piace
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