Research on Justice

Since the late 1970s, in France as in most European countries, restrictions on immigration and asylum have been accompanied by increasing social inequalities and racial discrimination. Immigration control and crime repression policies have tended to criminalize immigrants, as well as to associate aliens and delinquents in a context where insecurity has become a major political issue. But democratic states are also required to comply with the general principles of the rule of law, and therefore to provide all law offenders with equal legal protection and treatment. Under pressure from the European Union and non-governmental organizations, France had to develop procedures more respectful of human rights, in particular judicial rights.

These tensions between repressive policies and judicial guarantees are expressed in the courts, but they take distinct dimensions depending on whether the person judged is presumed to be a delinquent (juvenile courts), a victim (asylum court) or simply an illegal immigrant (administrative courts). In these various situations, moral and emotional factors penetrate the judicial scene and interfere with the purely legal evaluation of cases. The objective of this multi-sited research on justice was to study how the larger moral economy of immigration and crime influences the everyday work of adjudication in the courtroom. Our fieldwork thus engaged both the analysis of public controversies regarding justice, and the ethnographical accounts of immigrants and immigrant-originated offenders on trial: How are moral and emotional issues intertwined with legal matters? How do they interfere with local judicial work, and to what extent do they influence judges and their final rendering of a sentence? How do offenders react to these judgments by constructing their own narratives of their situation?

We addressed these issues via three fieldworks. Chowra Makaremi studied the process of immediate appearance trials before local French juvenile courts, where most delinquents, who belong to immigrant families and/or racial minorities, are judged for petty crimes and antisocial behavior. Moral issues included the general stigmatization of young offenders, the necessary protection for those under eighteen, and prevention of future unlawful acts. Nicolas Fischer focused on two courts involved in immigration control: the “freedom and detention judges” control the accuracy of administrative detention measures for deported immigrants, and the “administrative judges” review the appeals of undocumented aliens against their deportation orders. Moral issues involved the evaluation of family situations and more generally the lack of humaneness of immigration policies. Carolina Kobelinsky conducted research on the French Court of Appeal for Asylum. In this unique court where judges decide whether to grant or refuse asylum to defendants, she focused on persecution over sexual orientation and other private matters. Moral issues involved an evaluation of individual cases as well as an appraisal of collective conditions. Didier Fassin, who coordinated this project, was more specifically involved in the ethnography of asylum.