Naked Justice

I have only been imprisoned once. In September 1971, I and a group of friends drove to the south of France in John Shephard’s Morris Oxford. We had been doing manual jobs during the summer vacation from university, as was usual in those days, and we intended to spend some of our earnings sampling the delights of Provence and the Côte d’Azur before the new term began. We swam, we ate large meals costing ten francs including wine, we suffered the attentions of mosquitoes as we slept, or tried to sleep, in our tents at the campsite.

Most of the time we were all together, but sometimes we split up so people could follow their own inclinations. One evening I found myself alone on a beach somewhere to the east of Saint Tropez. It had been, and continued to be, the most beautiful day, and when you are twenty, fit and healthy and with enough money to enjoy yourself, life seems extraordinarily wonderful. That is the state of mind I was in as I looked back from the sand on which I stood, to the semi-circle of rising land, where pines and maquis grew profusely, which enclosed this little bay. I could just make out the conical towers of several villas camouflaged by the vegetation.

I am not an ideological naturist, as some people are, particularly in France. I understand and sympathise with the cast of mind which sees the exposure of the naked body to the sun and the wind, in the loveliness of youth and in defiance of the ravages of age, as an almost religious commitment. There are naturist settlements on the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of France, established many decades ago, to which adherents return every summer. I am not such a person, but I do derive intense sensual pleasure from swimming — whether in a pool or in the sea — with nothing on at all, as long as no one nearby is likely to be shocked. So, having looked around the bay and failed to spot a single person there, which was not surprising since it was the hour of dinner, I took off all my clothes and walked into the lovely, warm, caressing late-summer water. I swam out, out, a long way, and turned on my back and saw the new moon in the sky. For half an hour I floated and frisked, or took deep breaths and plunged downwards as far as I could go before coming up for air.

The third or fourth time that I came up for air, I noticed that, far away on the beach, a dark-blue Renault 4, marked ‘Gendarmerie’, was crossing the hard, compacted sand. It came to a stop next to my little heap of clothes. A uniformed policeman got out and stood by the car. He seemed in no hurry to leave; in fact, it looked as if he was waiting for me.

In these circumstances, my choices were limited. I could carry on treading water, as the evening passed and the temperature dropped, in the diminishing hope that the policeman might simply have driven down to the beach to enjoy the beauty of the place and the moment, as I had until his arrival. After ten minutes considering this option, I rejected it. The only other choice, obviously, was to swim in, walk across the sand to my clothes, say ‘Bonsoir’ to the gendarme, and face the music, if there was music to be faced. This I did. I was five minutes getting to shore, and another two or three arriving at my clothes.

The policeman’s first action was to salute me. A fully uniformed servant of the French state, aged perhaps fifty, saluted a twenty-year-old naked skinny foreign boy with shoulder-length hair. ‘Bonsoir, monsieur,’ he said, before I could greet him. He then explained his mission, in clear, carefully articulated French, making sure every few sentences that I understood.

I had committed a minor crime (un délit). Although le naturisme was permitted in certain tightly defined sections of le littoral, it was forbidden in this commune (he named it) and in neighbouring communes, as an outrage to public feeling, according to by-law number so-and-so, section number so-and-so, as enacted by… and here I forget whether the enactment was at the level of the commune or of the département. A local resident had reported le délit, and the policeman was obliged to act on that report. Would I be so good as to accompany him to the gendarmerie? I replied that I would indeed be so good. He suggested that I dress. I was only too happy to oblige. During the interview, the air had dried me, which was just as well since I had no towel.

As we drove to the gendarmerie, the man was the soul of courtesy. Was I enjoying les vacances in the Var? Was I a student? What was I studying? He even complimented me on my competence in his language. When we entered the police station, however, his manner became graver. He regretted to inform me that, according to section number so-and-so, sub-section number so-and-so of the penal code, I must either pay a fine (une amende) of 250 francs, or I must consent to a brief period of imprisonment. I asked how long the period would be. He replied that in the circumstances, considering that, to his knowledge, this was my first offence in the commune, and taking into account my remorse (I had indeed been repeatedly remorseful, standing there on the beach with no clothes on), the period of imprisonment would be limited to one night.

It was an easy choice. The man led me downstairs to a cell, which was equipped with a bed, a blanket and a flushing toilet. He showed me the buzzer which would attract his attention in case of an emergency or extreme need, but warned me severely against using it more casually. Before locking me in, he asked whether I would like a cup of coffee. I said I would. He came back ten minutes later, unlocked, handed in the coffee with two sugar lumps and a little biscuit, bade me goodnight and locked me in again.

The bed was hard but long enough, and even though, so far as I could see, the little barred opening high up in the wall giving onto the outside world had no glass, there were no mosquitoes. I knew that my friends might be wondering where I was, but I had no way of contacting them, and I stopped worrying about it. So I slept well that night, once I had properly processed in my mind this turn of events. Some busy-body bigwig in one of those villas behind the pines was responsible, I was sure. Maybe the mayor, or a local councillor, or just a prude whose ‘public feeling’ had been enjoyably outraged…

The next morning, soon after six, my host unlocked the cell. He surpassed himself this time, bringing me another cup of coffee plus a croissant plus a pain au chocolat. I was starving hungry. Departing, he left the door open and told me to join him upstairs when I had finished breakfast. At the desk a quarter of an hour later, I signed a form in triplicate. He took the top two copies and gave me the third. I regret very much that somehow I lost my copy later in the holiday. Then he pronounced, with a flourish in his articulation, ‘Monsieur, vous avez purgé votre peine!’ I was in tears of gratitude as I shook his hand. ‘Merci, merci, monsieur. Vous avez été tellement gentil.’ ‘C’est mon devoir,’ he replied. And then, in a different tone of voice, conspiratorially, ‘Il y a des gens qui sont, disons, moralisiteurs. Mais la prochaine fois, portez un maillot de bain.

I walked out into the cool of the Provençal morning, feeling terrific.