Martine Baret in her office on Rue du Louvre
I always imagined private detectives as shadowy figures in long dark coats and impractically large hats. So seeing Glenn Mulcaire – the private detective hired by the News of the World to hack voice messages – has ruined the romance somewhat, looking, as he does, like an ageing Take Me Out contestant.
Fortunately, in France the private detective still enjoys a respectable status, with family agencies occupying offices on the high street and advertising online. I first came across one on a trip to Paris, spotting a large neon sign – "Duluc Detective" – hanging over a perfume shop on the Rue de Louvre. Martine Baret, the 66-year-old who runs Duluc, told me she inherited the agency from her father, who’d inherited it from his father, who'd founded the business in 1913.
She also told me that times are tough for the French gumshoe. Once a thriving profession of more than 2,000 people, there are now less than 800 private investigators like Madame Baret working in France. A snoops’ union, SNARP, is trying to win new powers from the French authorities to be recognised as “auxiliaires de justice” (official auxiliaries of the justice system) rather than nosy folk with no more rights than the ordinary citizen, but even if they're successful it doesn't necessarily mean people are going to start hiring them in their droves again.
I asked Madame Baret about her half-a-century career as a detective, and how things have changed over that time.
VICE: Bonjour, madame. When did you begin your career as a private detective?
Martine Baret: I started to work here in 1966, when I was 18, and my father was happy to work with me. I adored the work. I still love it. It’s always different – you meet such interesting people, and you get a glimpse of all kinds of society. I still get excited by every case.
How much surveillance do you still do personally?
If a woman is needed, I will still go – a woman can be more discreet. Otherwise, my male colleagues do most of the shadowing now. It’s more difficult getting information from neighbours nowadays because people don’t always know about each other in a building like they once did, so there's less gossip. The concierge doesn’t seem to see or hear as much as before. People are a little more private. And electronic door codes made things more difficult.
How many of your cases involve adultery, spying on cheating husbands or wives?
It was once about 80 percent of cases, but in 1974 the divorce law changed in France, so it became different. If there was a dispute between a couple, it was no longer so necessary to prove infidelity. But we do still get cases involving disputes between a man and a wife: money and real estate disputes, and disputes over the children. For your client you try to obtain evidence about the amounts of money, about any drugs or alcohol abuse of the spouse. But it’s very different nowadays. It’s only about 20 percent of cases now.
So French people don’t care so much if their partner is sleeping around?
Some people still really want to know if a man or woman is cheating on them. But women are working more now in France, so they don’t have time to check up on what their husbands might be doing behind their backs.
Can’t people do their own detective work online these days, too?
Yes, the internet has changed things. But some people still see the private detective as his last chance to obtain a result. We have no more rights than any French citizen, but we know our rights better than the [average] French citizen and use our knowledge to get what is required. There are public records we can buy or obtain – IRS, property ownership, family history. And we still use our guile to do everything we can to obtain information. Within the law, of course.
What happens if a client wants you to bend the law? How sneaky do you get?
If a client asks to go beyond the borderline of legal means, he can go somewhere else. It’s too risky to jeopardise everything – our reputation is very important.
So you don’t hack phone calls?
No. Even if we could get a good recording – even if we could record a conversation in a restaurant, or take a photo through a window – we could not use that in a report. It’s not legal. But if we happen to overhear a conversation or hear gossip… well, that is information we might try to use other means to verify and obtain the same result.
Have you had many problems from the subjects of your work? Presumably people don't like it when you present evidence about them in court.
Yes, sometimes they can be very unhappy. But we have been authorised by a client to gather truthful information. So we cannot care about how they feel about it. Information and evidence we have gathered is considered among other evidence a lawyer might use. If a judge sees a report or a photo from our agency, then he knows it did not go through Photoshop. He appreciates our reputation. Remember, we can take photos in the street, in public, of a person or a car number plate. Everyone takes photos, after all. That’s not a problem in terms of privacy.
Is it hard not to get emotionally involved in some cases?
We can do as many as 100 missing person cases a year. There was one woman who was desperate to find her father, and when we found him she cried and cried, and I couldn’t help but cry, too. So it’s hard to avoid being involved, personally. But you have to be tough. Not everything turns out satisfactorily for the client.
We had another woman who wanted to find out who her father was. Eventually we tracked the father down to the south of France. The client went to see him. The man was very old. He looked at the evidence, our report, and said, “Yes, the report looks correct and I must certainly be your father, but unfortunately I don’t remember your mother because I slept with so many women in my life. Anyhow, let us sit together and eat and have some nice wine.” And so the client was a little disappointed. But she found her father, at least.
Martine Baret's office on Rue du Louvre
What kinds of cases are common these days?
A boss can wonder whether something about an employee is true or not – perhaps the employee is always watching TV when he should be working or [claims to be] ill. Or, for instance, if you have boss who wonders if an employee who has just left the company has taken vital information – confidential information – to another company in the same industry. That becomes a little more technical to prove. We might check through his bag of rubbish – the rubbish he has thrown out – to see what he has. There are more cases like that these days.
What do you think about private eye film noirs and detective novels? Do you have any favourites?
I get depressed with a lot of the films and novels, because it's so far from the reality. You see a microphone sliding through the window, and you think, 'No, no, no…' It’s a pity. It is difficult to think of a good movie about detective work. Perhaps one of the old ones, like Stolen Kisses by [François] Truffaut. But the modern spy movies are so technological, and it’s not like that.
What will becoming an “auxiliary of justice” mean for you and your business?
Nowadays, a judge might appreciate a detective’s report based on reputation, but if we were official auxiliaries of the justice system there would be nothing to discuss or consider – the evidence would be accepted more straightforwardly.
When do you think you’ll retire?
Never. I would never give up. I’m always optimistic and excited about the next case. Sometimes I don’t sleep at night because I have all the information, I have found the solution and I know that the client is waiting.
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