Bright, young and female, Nathalie Gavarino has all the qualities that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, requires as he tries to revamp Britain's predominantly male judiciary. Except one: Gavarino is French, not British, and she has just taken up her first judicial post in Belfort, in eastern France.
Yet she is in the middle of a row over sex equality. In France, the problem is that there are too many female judges, according to Falconer's counterpart, the justice minister, Dominique Perben. Gavarino was among 220 women to join the French bench this summer, compared with 38 men. Overall, women are just in the majority among France's 7,243-strong judiciary - a profession that includes prosecutors as well as judges. But they account for eight out of ten new appointments, and this is a thought so alarming to Perben that recently he proposed quotas for male candidates - though he later withdrew the idea. As Veronique Imbert, the vice-president of the magistrates' union, quickly responded: "No one ever talked about quotas when the judiciary was dominated by men, as it always used to be."
But even Imbert admits there could be a problem. "I have to accept," she said, "that it is not healthy when a profession is overwhelmingly single sex . . . We must find ways of getting men back into the judiciary . . . but we must not appoint any old idiot just because he happens to be a man." Gavarino, a former law lecturer who has become a judge at 38, said: "I think the ministry is worried that if all these new judges become pregnant and take maternity leave . . . they would have trouble finding judges to sit in the courtrooms."
Francoise Toillon, 40, who graduated with Gavarino, also sees Perben's point. She said: "When a man is accused of sexual aggression, for instance, often his lawyer is a woman, the judge is a woman and the prosecutor is a woman, and he comes away thinking that all this is a women's conspiracy against him. In French courts, about 80 per cent of defendants are men. If 80 per cent of the judges are women, then I suppose there is a problem."
Women's growing success dates back to the 1950s, when the old-boy network ruled and an overwhelming majority of judges were ageing men. The justice ministry's answer was to set up the Ecole Nationale de la Magistrature, which is now the only gateway to a career in the judiciary or the state prosecution service. You have to pass a tough legal examination to get in, and later pass another to get a job in a courtroom. Ever since, the number of women entering the judiciary has risen steadily. Part of the problem is that fewer men apply - and those who do so perform less well in the entrance exam than women (8 per cent pass rate against 11 per cent). "The women are more serious in their approach, harder working, more determined and they stick at it better," said Perben. "All in all, I have to accept that they are of a better standard."
One reason may be that the men prefer to become lawyers - which, in France, is a different career to the judiciary. In private practice, they can earn far more than judges, whose salaries start at about £25,000 a year and reach £40,000 after ten years. Women may prefer the paid holidays, maternity leave and job security of the judiciary, Toillon suggests. She also thinks women are more attracted to the ideals of the judiciary: "If you want to become a judge, the most important thing is to want to serve the state, and perhaps women are more motivated by that idea."
But men still dominate senior posts in the high courts and appeals courts. Will all those young women entrants really sweep them aside in future? Gavarino and Toillon point out that promotion within the judiciary still relies on the opinions of senior judges. "Men are more ambitious and careerist," Gavarino said. " They tend to hang around late, just to impress the chief prosecutor, for instance. Promotion is much more important to them."