By Chine Labbé
PARIS (Reuters) - France's top magistrate took the unusual step of publicly berating the president on Thursday after disparaging comments about the judiciary Francois Hollande reportedly made to journalists emerged in a book published this week.
The spat with the judiciary is just one of the embarrassments the book, "A President Shouldn't Say That" written by two journalists from daily Le Monde, has caused.
Speaking from the gilded grand chamber of the centuries-old court of justice in central Paris, France's highest ranking magistrate Bertrand Louvel told newly appointed judges the comments attributed to Hollande were degrading and dangerous for the institution.
"The President of the Republic has let comments be published, without denying them, in which he calls the judiciary a 'cowardly institution' where some 'hide away', 'play the virtuous' and 'dislike politics'," said Louvel, wearing the traditional fur-lined red robes.
"His predecessor had before likened magistrates to 'small, tasteless peas'," the judge said, referring to comments made by former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
"This renewed outrage against the judiciary, at a time where all authorities should show coherence, poses an institutional problem," Louvel said.
Hollande also reportedly told the journalists in December 2015, a month after Islamist gunmen killed 130 people in Paris, that France had "a problem with Islam", comments that risk damaging his left-wing party base six months before a presidential election.
On Wednesday, Hollande invited France's two highest ranking judges to see him in a bid to patch up relations. On Thursday, they said the 20-minute meeting had failed to quell their anxiety.
"Yesterday's meeting with the president did not soften the feeling of humiliation magistrates experienced again," top prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said.
"What can the French people be thinking when such comments are made about their justice system by the country's highest authority?"
A source close to Hollande told Reuters the president had always respected the judiciary's independence, adding: "The president must be judged on his actions and public speeches."
Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said: "Give me one word, one public word the president has said since 2012 where he commented on a court decision? Not a word, even less an insult, an act or an intervention in a court decision."
The release of the book has overshadowed an interview with Hollande in L'Obs magazine, also published on Wednesday, which people close to him said was aimed at taking him a step closer to formally launching his bid for re-election.
(Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Callus and Janet Lawrence)