Anatole France, a French author who won the Nobel Prize for literature, was born in 1844 and died in 1924. One of his works bears the title “L’Affaire Crainquebille” (The Crainquebille Affaire). Besides telling a story, it is filled with satire and offers an amusing picture of legal practices in his day.
Anatole France plunges in medias res. Jerôme Crainquebille, an ambulatory salesman, is on trial. He sits on an elevated seat, overawed by the scene: Before him is the imposing presence of Bourriche, the magistrate who will judge him. It seems as if the full weight of both civil and ecclesiastical law threatens the miserable defendant, since a bust symbolic of the French Republic and a crucifix adorned the judgment hall.
In an amusing fashion, Anatole France points out that Crainquebille might have objected that the laws of the republic and the canon law of the church did not agree with one another. However, Crainquebille was too astonished to speak.
His trouble had begun at noon on October 20. He sold some leeks to Madame Bayard. She took the leeks and ran into her store to get the money. However, instead of returning immediately, she was distracted by one of her customers.
Since his vegetable cart was blocking the street, a policeman told him to move forward. Crainquebille explained that he was waiting for his money. An argument ensued.
Eventually a misunderstanding occurred. The policemen wrongly thought that Crainquebille had insulted him with the words: “Mort aux vaches.”
This phrase literally means: “Death to the cows.” In our day, a disorderly person would most likely use the word “pigs” instead of “cows.” Crainquebille had not spoken these words, and an elderly gentleman assured the policeman that he was mistaken. Nevertheless, Crainquebille was arrested anyway. His vegetable cart was towed away.
Madame Bayard finally came out of the store with Crainquebille’s money; but when she saw that the vendor was being arrested, she thought that she did not have to pay him.
Doctor David Matthieu, the elderly witness, approached the commissioner, identified himself as a witness, and averred that Crainquebille was innocent. The commissioner said that in former days his testimony would have been sufficient to dismiss the charge, but now learned men were suspect.
Monsieur Lemerle, Crainquebille’s lawyer, visited him before the trial. After some discussion, the lawyer advised Crainquebille to confess. He would have done so, but he did not know what to confess.
At the trial, when Bourriche interrogated Crainquebille, the defendant did not respond. He was too afraid too speak. When he finally opened his mouth, his thought was poorly expressed.
The policeman, whose name was Bastien Matra, testified against Crainquebille. Madame Bayard took the stand, but she could not throw any light on the affair since she had not witnessed it. David Matthieu testified that Crainquebille was innocent, but he was not taken seriously. Bourriche sentenced the defendant to 15 days in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 50 francs.
After the trial, Jean Lermite and Joseph Auberrée discussed the verdict. Anatole France uses this discussion to satirize the legal system. Lermite believed that Bourriche had acted wisely when he blindly accepted the word of the policemen instead of using reason and knowledge to learn the truth. The policeman represented the power of the republic. It would be a mistake to think that justice should be just. Rather, court verdicts should support the state’s authority, lest the order of society be undermined.
In contrast, Auberrée did not think that Bourriche entertained such high metaphysical thoughts when he issued his verdict. Rather, he simply noticed what other judges were doing and followed their example. Auberrée thought that people should do the same thing that others were accustomed to do.
In prison, Crainquebille was mystified. The court proceedings impressed him deeply, and he found it impossible to believe that the verdict was wrong, though he did not really know how he had offended the policeman.
His lawyer brought him some good news. A charitable citizen had furnished the fifty francs needed to pay the fine.
At first, Crainquebille was cheerful when released from prison. However, he soon found that his former customers avoided him because of his stay in prison. He became bitter and began to treat people badly. Though formerly abstemious, he soon began to drink. As a result, he became very poor. He even lost his lodgings.
As Crainquebille was suffering from hunger and from the bitter cold of winter, he longed for the warmth and food that he had received in prison. So he approached a policeman and said to him with a feeble voice: “Mort aux vaches.”
The policeman did not arrest him. He only rebuked him and told him to move on. He explained that it would not be profitable to arrest everyone who said things that they should not say,
Wikisource: Anatole France – L’Affaire Crainquebille