So, after a 10 month long, expensive and very stressful legal battle with the extradition system, I was finally flown to France on July 8, 2019. Readers will understand, I hope, that I cannot go into the legal issues surrounding the case, but suffice to say that the defence maintained that the accusations had already been tried in the UK, that the UK courts had, on four separate occasions, decided that the second of the two accusations was not valid on the grounds of “double jeopardy”, and the French had accepted that I would not be detained in France pending trial should that come to pass.
My French legal team had asked the Judge (Juge d’Instruction) to confirm that I would not be charged with the second offence nor held in detention, in which case I would go to France of my own accord and at my own expense to avoid the pain, on both sides, of an actual extradition. The Judge refused for reasons that have not been explained. One might assume that it could have been purely through laziness, a spirit of vengeance or the idea that going through the process would make me more amenable to agreeing to something with which I disagreed. We may never know the workings of his mind.
In any case, around 5 July I received a telephone call from Suffolk Police about the organisation of the extradition. Why Suffolk when I live in Surrey? – nobody knew or cared sufficiently to find out. I suspect that it was simply an error in the original EAW (European Arrest Warrant). Whatever the logic might have been, their mission was now to get me to Heathrow for 10:00 on the Monday where I would be handed over to the French authorities. These plain clothed officers were extremely pleasant, transparent, knowledgeable and helpful. We agreed that there was no need for dramatic scenes at my house and that we would meet at the local railway station at 07:30. That required them to stay in a nearby four-star hotel the night before.
During the weekend I had an unexpected visit from the Surrey police – uniformed and in a marked car – which completely demolished the plan to keep everything discreet. They delivered a letter for me to sign, acknowledging that I was being extradited on the Monday. I explained that everything had already been organised. They were absolutely in the dark but pretended to be in control of the situation. This intervention was entirely unnecessary and could have been avoided if communications between the police forces had been functioning.
So, I was at the station as planned at 07:30 even though officers had warned me by text that they would be a little late. In any case, we managed to arrive at Heathrow well-ahead of schedule after an interesting conversation in the vehicle and stopped for refreshments at a McDonald’s near the airport. Being a vegan there was little for me to eat so I decided not to eat, expecting something to be available at lunchtime– more of that later.
We then progressed through a zone controlled by the Metropolitan Police and were driven in one of their vans to a door that led to the check-in area. At some point in this process the electronic bracelet (tag as it is commonly referred to) was removed from my left leg. We were met there by the reception party of three Frenchmen, two of them extremely burly. I found out later that they were, in fact, from the Administration Pénitentiaire (Prison Service) and had left their homes in Paris at 03:30 for this mission. They were firm, fair and friendly and respected the rules scrupulously. After a fairly formal greeting they proceeded to take from me anything they considered of value such as watch, telephone, money and bank cards in order to “keep them safe”. The leader of the team told me that, because I was over 70 years old, I could not be handcuffed. We then advanced at lightning speed through the formalities before the other passengers were even lined up and, after I went through an unusually thorough – thorough for an airport – but to-be-expected search, we were presented to the captain at the door of the plane. I assumed this was partly out of courtesy but also because he would have the right to refuse to accept me. We occupied the last five seats in the cabin with me right in the corner, presumably to ensure that my presence aboard would not trouble other passengers. The flight was with Air France for reasons of jurisdiction – Air France being the flag carrier; hence we were not able to use Gatwick which would have been so much easier. The staff were all very pleasant and the flight went off without incident. The “meal” served on board was half of half a sandwich, however, which was only enough to keep me going through the flight. By the time we landed at Roissy, Charles de Gaulle, I was hungry.
On arrival I was whisked away, without any formalities, through normally inaccessible doors and then driven by an Administration Pénitentiaire vehicle to a building housing the PAF (Police Aux Frontières). Inside I was effectively arrested, fingerprinted (including palms of both hands), photographed (including profile and head at 45°). Surprisingly, for a procedure much more thorough that in the UK, no DNA sample was taken. The very kind lady who controlled the process explained that there was no hurry to get to the Tribunal because the Judge was running late – I only understood the significance of that remark later. After more waiting in drab corridors which could have been anywhere in the UK administration except, perhaps, for the smell of cigarettes coming from outside areas, I was whisked away again with my three escorts and driver, sirens blaring all the way to the Tribunal de Paris – this was now becoming a French experience.
The Tribunal is housed in a wonderful, huge, skyscraper, just inside the Périphérique at the Porte de Clichy. It was built, or rather completed, about two years ago, and now regroups almost all of the 25 courts that existed in Paris – an example of central planning at it most efficient – one might imagine the furore if London were to do the same yet the efficiency and economic sense of such a change would be obvious. Of course, I didn’t see much, if anything, of the architecture, inside or out, because I was driven underneath into the 3000 square metre secure zone. Once inside the terrible reality of my situation became apparent. I was stripped of everything including laces, and was not allowed access to my bag, wherein I had stashed some nutrition bars, just in case. It is difficult to describe the scene in the bowels of the Tribunal: the dregs of Parisian society, the smells of the unwashed, police of all different types. I had shaken hands with my escorts, said farewell hoping never to see them again, of course, and was now in a different world not knowing what direction I was facing, what the time was, what was going to happen and how long I was going to be held.
I was moved fairly rapidly out of a holding cell along corridors worthy of a novel by Kafka and by strange lift systems divided in two parts – the part at the back being a sort of cage for the accused. I was handcuffed briefly even though I had protested that I was over seventy and had two metal bars in my left arm and a left wrist badly deformed after a succession of cycling accidents. The officer laughed in a sympathetic manner and explained that everything was at his discretion. During a walk along one of the seemingly interminable corridors I fiddled with the handcuffs and accidentally tightened them. I pleaded with the officer for help and instead of loosening them he just removed them. It is striking how, wherever in the world and whatever the dramatic circumstances, one can always find acts of kindness in humanity.
I was now placed in a proper cell, somewhere above the induction and holding area, which consisted of a concrete bed topped with a thin, narrow foam mattress and an open stainless-steel toilet – the sort that one would have seen in Parisian cafés in the last century but relatively new, of course. The advantage of this style of toilet is that there is nothing to break or steal or use as a weapon. There was also a drinking water facility that was over-excitable and drenched me every time I tried to fill my plastic cup. That was it: nothing to read, look at or eat all in the name of safety. I confess that I started, now, to have minor panic attacks augmented by the fact that I was hungry. I rang the emergency buzzer and explained to an officer that I had not eaten for hours and that I had some nutrition bars in my bag. He explained that I could have access to nothing and that food is served at lunchtime only, on the assumption that people arriving in court are from police custody or prison where they would have had breakfast. I mentioned that I had expected my lawyer to be there and was told to be patient. The door, which was all steel and Perspex was bolted shut for what, then, seemed like hours. I could not sleep, even though I was already exhausted. I busied myself by trying to flush away the smell of urine using a combination of the toilet flush and the overflowing water fountain.
Some immeasurable time later the door unlocked and I was told that I was being moved further up the building so that I could meet with my lawyer. I was placed in a cell with nothing but a fixed table and benches and with a male and a female officer outside. My lawyer came, explained that he had had his first sight of my file which was enormous, but had needed the time to read some of it before seeing me. He confirmed that the Judge was running late – by a number of hours – and that we would be meeting with him as soon as possible. I later realised that this was because of a very high-profile case (Bernard TAPIE et al) that coincided with my very lack-lustre affair. He reassured me that I would be leaving that evening, said he would try to get me something to eat from a machine and would then have to go back to wait on another floor. When he left and explained to the guards what he was doing they invited me, in another act of humanity, to sit with them. My lawyer came back with a cereal bar which I devoured in about thirty seconds. How good it tasted! After my lawyer had left to find out what was happening, I sat chatting with my guards about my case and specifically about the wafer-thin distance between guilt and innocence and the failings of the jury system. I learnt a lot about the French system and the difference between it and the UK one.
Eventually, hours later than was planned, I was ushered into the judge’s office with the two officers that now knew me at my side but slightly behind me – presumably to ensure I did not attack the judge or his assistant or even my lawyer. After a short, bad-tempered discussion, we were ushered out again while the Judge prepared the indictment documents and those required for my release on bail. The bad temper was caused by the fact that he had slipped back onto the indictment notice a charge which I considered to have been already discharged by the UK courts. Once recalled into his office, I signed some papers and left with my guards and lawyer who warned me that it might take some time for me to actually get released out of the building. We said goodbye and planned for me to meet at his offices the following morning.
The two officers then took me back down to the bowels of the building where the dregs of society were now even more numerous and presented me to the office with my release form. I waited for possibly an hour before my belongings were restored to me and another twenty minutes before an officer came to escort three of us out of the building through numerous corridors and security checks. My fellow prisoners being released remarked commented to our guard on what an unlikely criminal I was and laughed at themselves for having presumed that I was an employee of the French justice system.
I found myself outside in a sort of alleyway completely disoriented and wondering why this had all been necessary. The waste of resources was flagrant. Given constraints on public spending on both sides of the channel, what work did not get done while all these people were looking after me unnecessarily?