(May 24, 2011) Two laws relating to the creation of a “Defender of Rights” were published in France's official gazette on March 30, 2011 (Loi organique no. 2011-333 du 29 mars 2011 relative au défenseur des droits [Law 2011-333], LEGIFRANCE, & Loi no. 2011-334 du 29 mars 2011 relative au défenseur des droits [Law 2011-334], LEGIFRANCE (both last visited May 19, 2011)). The Defender of Rights position was created to further ensure respect for individual rights and liberties by the state and bodies exercising the state's prerogatives.
A number of existing independent public authorities that dealt with matters involving respect for individual fundamental rights were incorporated in the new institution over the objections of some Members of Parliament, who felt that the government wanted to reduce the influence of these authorities. The government claims that its objective is one of efficiency. The former authorities include the Defender of the Rights of the Child, the National Commission on Ethics in the Security Services, and the High Authority Against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE). The significant role of the HALDE in the fight against discrimination and the necessity to maintain it as a separate entity were, in particular, stressed by many. (The HALDE in the Spotlight, Interview with Louis Schweitzer, President of the HALDE, European Network of Equality Bodies website (last visited May 20, 2011); Arnaud Leparmentier, L'avenir de la Halde n'est pas politiquement tranché, LE MONDE (Mar. 5, 2010).)
The Defender of Rights is appointed by the President of the Republic. Claimants (individuals and/or legal entities) may directly address their complaints to the Defender or to a Member of Parliament or a French Member of the European Parliament, who will forward the complaint to the Defender. The Defender also can decide to intervene on his/her own initiative and may recommend legislative modifications and be consulted by the Prime Minister on any draft laws concerning his/her areas of competence. (Law 2011-333, supra.)
The Defender will review claims by any persons or legal entities that feel their rights and liberties were violated by the functioning of the state, complaints of violations of children's rights, and breaches of ethics rules by security forces. The Defender also has been tasked with handling the entire scope of the HALDE's competence in the field of discrimination. HALDE used to fight any form of discrimination, including that discrimination based on gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, religion, age, or handicap. It was tasked with meeting with and providing advice to victims of discrimination and promoting equality by organizing awareness campaigns and training programs. It also investigated, mediated, and made recommendations in relation to the claims of alleged victims of discrimination. (Id.)
The Defender is to be assisted by several “colleges.” One college is in charge of the defense and promotion of the rights of the child, another will handle ethics violations by security forces, and a third will conduct the fight against discrimination. Each college is supervised by a vice president appointed by the Prime Minister upon the Defender's recommendation. The Defender and his/her assistants cannot be sued, arrested, detained, or judged for any of the opinions they express or acts they carry out in performing their functions. (Id.)
The Defender has been given wide investigatory powers. He/she has the explicit authority to request an order from a judge in case of noncompliance with one of his/her investigation requests. In addition, noncompliance with a notice to appear before the Defender, failure to communicate the information and documents requested to the Defender, or not allowing the Defender access to premises is punishable by one year of imprisonment and a fine of €15,000 (about US$21,410). (Law 2011-334, supra.)