Abdeslam hands new lawyer 'challenge of career'
Salah Abdeslam's last lawyer described him as a "little moron" who brought him nothing but trouble.
Now French lawyer Frank Berton is taking up the baton, by agreeing to take on the daunting task of defending the Paris attacks suspect.
The 53-year-old lawyer based in the northern city of Lille added Abdeslam to his client list after he was extradited on Wednesday from Belgium where he has been held since his capture last month.
Defending the last known surviving member of the terror squad that killed 130 people in Paris in November will be no easy feat, but those who know Berton say this will not put him off.
"He loves challenges (and this is) the biggest challenge of his career," said Jean-Luc Romero, who headed an association supporting Frenchwoman Florence Cassez whom Berton helped free from a Mexican jail after she was convicted of membership of a kidnapping gang.
"He is someone who has a sense of a lawyer's role, and in a democracy you also need lawyers to defend suspected terrorists, even if he knows he will take hits and risks by defending someone who is considered public enemy number one."
Berton takes over from Belgian lawyer Sven Mary, who gave a lengthy interview with the French daily Liberation in which he details how he has been the victim of physical and verbal attacks since taking on the case.
"This case has brought me nothing but troubles," said Mary, explaining how police have had to escort his two young daughters to school on several occasions.
Mary has said he is unsure whether he will continue to defend Abdeslam on the terror charges he faces in Belgium over the Paris attacks.
Just days after Abdeslam's arrest, suicide bombers who have been linked to him carried out attacks in Brussels that left 32 dead.
"There have been moments when I thought of giving up. If I had known about the Brussels attacks, maybe I would never have taken this case," Mary said.
He described his client as a "little moron from Molenbeek, more a follower than a leader. He has the intelligence of an empty ashtray."
However he believes that as a defendant, Abdeslam is "worth gold" and was willing to cooperate and communicate.
In his first chat with his new client Berton said this too was his impression, with Abdeslam claiming he was "anxious to explain himself."
Whether he will do so remains to be seen.
- Chasing the spotlight -
With his slicked-back hair, cigarette clamped between his lips and grumpy demeanour Berton cuts a uncompromising figure but he is also "sentimental and a bon vivant", Romero said.
He was admitted to the Lille bar in 1989, after a childhood marred by a violent father, and shot into the public sphere in 1999 when he defended an Islamist involved in the 1995 bombings in Paris.
He took part in other high-profile trials such as the Outreau affair, a paedophile case in which several people were jailed and later acquitted after it emerged the children involved and several witnesses had lied.
Eric Dupond-Moretti, another Lille lawyer who worked with Berton on the Outreau case, said: "A guy who is defended by Frank Berton will be defended well."
In 2015, he defended Dominique Cottrez, in France's worst-ever case of infanticide. She received a prison sentence of only nine years after admitting she killed eight newborns.
In this case Berton was "extremely professional from start to finish," said a magistrate in the court.
Despite Cottrez's surprise confession, and admission that she lied about being raped by her father as a child, Berton "never abandoned her or defended her badly," Dupond-Moretti said.
Some colleagues disparage Berton's love for high-profile cases.
If it is the media spotlight he craves, with Abdeslam he has hit the jackpot.
© 2016 AFP