Rahul Sharma

Capital punishment in France

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Capital punishment in France

Capital punishment was practised in France from the Middle Ages until 1977, when the last execution took place by guillotine, being the only legal method since the French Revolution (with the exception of firing squad for some crimes). The last person to be executed in France was Hamida Djandoubi, who was put to death in September 1977. The death penalty was abolished in French law in 1981. It is now also forbidden by the French constitution, and by several human rights treaties to which France is a party.


The Ancien Régime

Prior to 1791, under the "Ancien Régime", there existed a variety of means of capital punishment in France, depending on the crime and the status of the condemned person.

  • Hanging was the most common punishment.
  • Decapitation by sword was reserved for nobles.
  • Burning for heretics and arsonists. The convict was occasionally discreetly strangled.
  • Breaking wheel for brigands and murderers. The convict could be strangled before having his limbs broken or after, depending on the atrocity of his crime.
  • Death by boiling for counterfeiters.
  • Dismemberment for high treason, parricides, regicides.
  • Adoption of the guillotine

    The first campaign towards the abolition of the death penalty began on 30 May 1791, but on 6 October that year the National Assembly refused to pass a law abolishing the death penalty. However, they did abolish torture, and also declared that there would now be only one method of execution: 'Tout condamné à mort aura la tête tranchée' (All condemned to death will have their heads cut off).

    The guillotine had been proposed as a means of execution in 1789 by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. The French Revolution marked the end of hanging by requiring all executions to be accomplished by means of the blade, rather than reserving it only for nobles. However, as beheading by a hand-held axe or blade was a comparatively inefficient and unreliable method of execution compared with hanging, the mechanical guillotine was adopted; it was also regarded as a more humane way to take the life of the condemned than earlier messy ways of execution. The device was first used on Nicolas Jacques Pelletier on 25 April 1792. Guillotine usage then spread to other countries such as Germany (where it had been used since before the revolution), Italy, Sweden (used in a single execution), and French colonies in Africa, French Guyana and French Indochina.

    1939 onwards

    Public executions were the norm and continued until 1939. From the mid-19th century, the usual time of day for executions changed from around 3 pm to morning and then to dawn. Executions had been carried out in large central public spaces such as market squares but gradually moved towards the local prison. In the early 20th century, the guillotine was set up just outside the prison gates. The last person to be publicly guillotined was six-time murderer Eugen Weidmann who was executed on 17 June 1939 outside the St-Pierre prison (now part of the Palais de Justice). Photographs of the execution appeared in the press, and apparently this spectacle led the government to stop public executions and to hold them instead in prison courtyards, such as La Santé Prison in Paris. Following the law, the first to be guillotined inside a prison was Jean Dehaene, who had murdered his estranged wife and father-in-law, executed on 19 July 1939 at St-Brieuc.

    The 1940s and the wartime period saw an increase in the number of executions, including the first executions of women since the 19th century.

    In the 1950s to the 1970s, the number of executions steadily decreased, with for example President Georges Pompidou, between 1969 and 1974, giving clemency to all but three people out of the fifteen sentenced to death. President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing oversaw the last executions.

    Up to 1981, the French penal code stated that:

  • Article 12: "Any person sentenced to death shall have his head cut off."
  • Article 13: "By exception to article 12, when the death penalty is handed down for crimes against the safety of the State, execution shall take place by firing squad."
  • Article 14: "If the families of the executed persons wish to reclaim the bodies, they shall have them; it shall then be for them to have them buried without any pomp."
  • In addition, crimes such as treason, espionage, insurrection, piracy, aggravated murder, kidnapping with torture, felonies committed with the use of torture, setting a bomb in a street, arson of a dwelling house, and armed robbery made their authors liable to the death penalty; moreover, committing some military offenses such as mutiny or desertion or being accomplice or attempting to commit a capital felony were also capital offenses.


    The exclusive right to commute the death sentence belonged to the President of the Republic, as in earlier ages it had belonged to the Monarch.

    President Charles de Gaulle, who supported the death penalty, commuted 19 death sentences and during his term of office, 13 people were guillotined, and a few others executed by firing squad for crimes against the security of the state (the last of those was OAS member, Lt. Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, who was an organizer of the famous assassination attempt on de Gaulle in 1962).

    There were no executions during two-term Interim President Alain Poher, in 1969 and 1974.

    President Georges Pompidou, who was personally a death penalty opponent, commuted all but three death sentences imposed during his term.

    President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who, according to his own words, "felt a deep aversion to the death penalty," also commuted all but three death sentences. He was President at the time of the last execution in France.


    One of the examples of general amnesty for all people sentenced to death and awaiting execution took place in 1959 when, after de Gaulle's inauguration, all sentences were commuted (amnesty is not an executive clemency, rather it is an act of parliament).


    The first official debate on the death penalty in France took place on 30 May 1791, with the presentation of a bill aimed at abolishing it. The advocate was Louis-Michel Lepeletier of Saint-Fargeau and the bill was supported by Maximilien de Robespierre. However, the National Constituent Assembly, on 6 October 1791, refused to abolish the death penalty.

    On 26 October 1795, the National Convention abolished capital punishment, but only to signify the day of general peace. With the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte, the death penalty was reinstated on 12 February 1810, in the French Imperial Penal Code.

    The President of the Republic Armand Fallières, a supporter of abolition, continued to systematically pardon every convict condemned to death over the first three years of his seven-year office.

    In 1906 the Commission of the Budget of the Chamber of Deputies voted for withdrawing funding for the guillotine, with the aim of stopping the execution procedure. On 3 July 1908 the Garde des Sceaux, Aristide Briand, submitted a draft law to the Deputies, dated November 1906, on the abolition of the death penalty, but, despite the support of Jean Jaurès, the bill was rejected on 8 December by 330 votes to 201.

    Under the pro-Nazi Vichy Regime, Marshal Pétain refused to pardon five women due to be guillotined (something that had not occurred for more than 50 years). Pétain himself was sentenced to death following the overthrow of the Vichy Regime, but General Charles de Gaulle commuted Pétain's sentence to life imprisonment on the grounds of old age (89). Other Vichy officials, including notably Pierre Laval, were not so fortunate and shot. Under Vincent Auriol's presidency, three more women were beheaded; one in Algeria and two in France. The last Frenchwoman to be beheaded (Germaine Leloy-Godefroy) was executed in Angers in 1949.

    Having been defended by lawyer Robert Badinter, Patrick Henry narrowly escaped being condemned to death on 21 January 1977 for the murder of a child. Numerous newspapers predicted the end of the death penalty. On 10 September 1977, Hamida Djandoubi was guillotined; he would be the last person executed in France.

    Robert Badinter, a longtime opponent of capital punishment and the defending lawyer of some of the last men to be executed, became minister of justice and proposed the final abolition of the death penalty in 1981, which was pushed through the National Assembly with the backing of newly elected president François Mitterrand.

    Abolition process in 1981

  • 16 March 1981: During the presidential election campaign, François Mitterrand declared that he was against the death penalty. This was taken up in the Socialist Party's 110 Propositions for France electoral program, along with other justice reforms. Mitterrand was elected President on 10 May.
  • 25 May: François Mitterrand pardoned Philippe Maurice, the last person condemned to death to be pardoned.
  • 26 August: The Council of Ministers approved the bill to abolish the death penalty.
  • 17 September: Robert Badinter presented the bill to the Assemblée Nationale. It passed on 18 September, by 363 votes to 117.
  • 30 September: Several amendments were rejected in the Sénat. The law was officially passed by the two chambers.
  • 9 October: The law was promulgated. The last Western European country to practise the death penalty abolished it.
  • Current status

    Today, although a few French politicians (notably the far-right Front national former leader Jean-Marie Le Pen) declare themselves to be in favour of the death penalty, its re-establishment would not be possible without the unilateral French rejection of several international treaties. Repudiation of international treaties is not unknown to the French system, as France renounced its obligations under the NATO treaty.

    On 20 December 1985, France ratified Additional Protocol number 6 to the European Convention to Safeguard Human Rights and fundamental liberties. This means that France can no longer re-establish the death penalty, except in times of war or by denouncing the Convention.

    On 21 June 2001, Jacques Chirac sent a letter to the association "Ensemble" saying he was against the death penalty: "It's a fight we have to lead with determination and conviction, Because no justice is infallible and each execution can kill an innocent; because nothing can legitimise the execution of minors or of people suffering from mental deficiencies; because death can never constitute an act of justice".

    On 3 May 2002, France and 30 other countries signed Protocol number 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights. This forbids the death penalty in all circumstances, even in times of war. It went into effect on 1 July 2003, after having been ratified by 10 states.

    Despite the above, in 2004, a law proposition (number 1521) was placed before the French National Assembly, suggesting re-establishment of the death penalty for terrorist acts. The bill was not adopted. On 3 January 2006, Jacques Chirac announced a revision of the Constitution aimed at writing out the death penalty. (On the previous 13 October, the Constitutional Council had deemed the ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the international pact necessitated such a revision of the Constitution. The protocol concerned civil and political rights aimed at abolishing the death penalty.)

    On 19 February 2007, the Congress of France (the National Assembly and the Senate of France, reunited for the day) voted overwhelmingly a modification of the Constitution that states that "no one can be sentenced to the death penalty". There were 828 votes for the modification, and 26 against.

    Variations in French opinion

    During the 20th century, French opinion on the death penalty has greatly changed, as many polls have showed large differences from one time to another.

  • In 1908, Le Petit Parisien published a poll in which 77% of people asked were in favor of the death penalty.
  • In 1960, a survey from the IFOP showed that 50% of the French were against, while 39% were for.
  • In 1972, in a survey from the same institute, 27% of those surveyed were for abolition while 63% were for capital punishment.
  • In 1981, Le Figaro carried out a survey the day after the vote for abolition. It indicated that 62% of the French were for maintaining the death penalty.
  • In 1998, IFOP's and France Soir's survey showed that opinions were split in half, with 54% against the death penalty and 44% for it.
  • In 2006, TNS Sofres survey show opposition of the French people to death penalty generally: 52% are now against death penalty and 41% are pro-death penalty.
  • In 2007, according to Angus Reid Global Monitor, 52% of French are anti-death penalty and 45% are pro-death penalty.
  • In 2013, a Opinionway survey shows that 50% of the French people support re-introduction of the death penalty, up from 45% in 2012 and 35% in 2011.
  • Executions since 1959

    The following people were executed between 1959 and 1977.

    Notable opponents

  • Voltaire (writer and philosopher)
  • Nicolas de Condorcet (philosopher)
  • Louis-Michel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau (politician)
  • Victor Hugo (writer and politician)
  • Alphonse de Lamartine (writer and politician)
  • Léon Gambetta (politician)
  • Jean Jaurès (Socialist leader)
  • Aristide Briand (politician, long-time Prime Minister and Minister)
  • Gaston Leroux (writer)
  • Michel Foucault (philosopher)
  • Albert Camus (writer)
  • Robert Badinter (attorney and Minister of Justice)
  • Jacques Chirac (President)
  • Notable advocates

  • Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (philosopher)
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau (philosopher)
  • Benjamin Constant (philosopher and politician)
  • Auguste Comte (philosopher)
  • Maurice Barrès (writer and politician)
  • Charles de Gaulle (President) (only for men; commuted a majority of sentences)
  • Jean-Marie Le Pen (politician)
  • Alain Madelin (politician)
  • Éric Zemmour (writer and journalist)
  • Marine Le Pen (politician) (Not anymore)
  • References

    Capital punishment in France Wikipedia

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