I am finally able to compare the criminal justice systems of England and France, having been in police custody in both. The first time was in England almost 20 years ago. The latest, in France.
Last week I had an accident, or rather a frenzied French woman had an accident with me. I was on my way to the cinema with three friends when we were diverted onto a small country road due to serious pile-up on the main one. I was driving slowly, discussing the perils of French driving, when a black car came speeding towards us. Just as I thought it was going to race past, it crashed into us.
This is the third time I have been crashed into since I moved to France. You might, as my husband suggests, think this has something to do with my ability to drive. But the first time I was stationary and the second time I was on my side of the road. Sadly so was the car that ploughed into me.
This time I was as close to the kerb as I could be but still the oncoming driver couldn’t avoid hitting me. I stopped and got out, as did the other driver.
“You squashed me,” she told me angrily as I approached her car.
“That’s funny,” I replied. “I had the same sensation.”
There followed a 15 minute argument. The other driver refused to swap details; she said she wanted to wait for her husband. I was in no mood to wait for her husband: he might try and drive into me as well. In addition, the traffic on the tiny road was heavy due to the diversion and I was worried we might cause another accident. The woman became increasingly unreasonable.
“I’ve spent 15 years working in Accident & Emergency,” said Beth Anne, an American doctor friend who was with me. “This woman has what we would define a hysterical personality. We need to get out of here.”
I took the arrival of a tour bus beeping behind my car to do just that.
On we went to the cinema; reasoning that it was her fault anyway and that would be the end of it.
Imagine my surprise when the local police showed up a few days later asking for my husband.
“What has he done?” was my first thought. As he spends most of his time cycling I wondered whether he’d been caught speeding on his bicycle.
“There was an accident a few days ago,” said the policeman, as his younger assistant, inspector Clouseau-like, waved a familiar-looking broken wing-mirror in front of us. “Would you like to tell me about it?”
“No,” said my husband. “But she would.”
I was asked to come to the police station. Naturally I bought Beth Anne with me as an expert witness. The woman who drove into me had come up with a very different version of events to what actually happened, even telling the police she was injured.
“I’ll see you separately,” the grey-haired policeman from the previous day told us when we arrived. I followed him down a corridor into an office with two tables in it. There was a chair against one of the grey walls which he told me to sit in. He sat behind his desk and started typing in my details into a large old-fashioned computer. The room was shuttered up to keep the sun out; Roujan police station does not have the luxury of air-conditioning.
After about ten minutes of laboriously spelling the names of every living (and dead) relation I have ever had, he asked me to tell him what had happened.
Half-way through my statement a young officer joined us. I recognised him from the home visit the previous day as well. They were both charming to the point of being flirtatious. Just what you need when you’re in a spot of bother.
Whenever the phone rang the younger one would leap up to answer it. Most of the calls were from a mad woman who spends her whole day calling. You’d think she’d have better things to do, like driving into innocent foreigners.
“Do you know how we found you?” asked the more senior policeman after I’d signed my statement. The car I had been driving is a Jaguar, belonging to a friend. It has a personalised number plate which I had always imagined would be impossible to track.
“No,” I replied. “How?”
“Your licence plate is untraceable. We had been looking for you for a few days when we saw your car by chance at a garage,” he told me. “Are you having the oil changed?”
“No, I took it in to fix the wing mirror.”
“I asked the mechanic why it was there and he told me he was just changing the oil,” said the policeman. “I asked him about the broken wing mirror and he told me he knew nothing about it.”
It’s not called the Garage Siciliano for nothing.
“By the way,” he added. “Your car is still on the national search system so if you get stopped just tell the police it’s been dealt with.”
Great, so now I’m going to be stopped by eager gendarmes every time I go shopping.
I am waiting to hear what happens next regarding the accident, but I understand we both have to sign some form saying it was a no one’s fault and that will be an end to it.
Even if I end up paying for the damage to my car myself the whole experience was so much more civilised than my encounter at Stoke Newington police station all those years ago. The police there cared nothing for justice but were only interested in convicting someone, anyone, for some class C drugs they found in the glove compartment of a car I was in. They weren’t my drugs but as I was the only one in the car without a criminal record the police convinced me it would save my friend (a rock star with a long list of convictions) from going to jail if I took the blame. Luckily the judge, when it came to court, realised what had happened.
Along with integrity, the other thing that Roujan police station has, and that was sadly lacking at Stoke Newington, is a Babyfoot table in the garden.
As in so many things that really matter; such as the health service, education, public transport and pastry shops, the French come out on top.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog www.beautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as contributing regularly for newspapers and magazines, writing short stories and studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Smullö that will be published in spring 2020.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and came out in paperback in April 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives between there and London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019