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On December 14, 1851, Rennes and Brittany were in turmoil: “Jegado” was judged to be one of the worst poisoners in history. Only five murders have been retained, but it is suspected of having attempted the lives of 97 people (men, women and children), of which about sixty died. At the helm, a young 24-year-old lawyer, Me Magloire Dorange, tries to save his client and launches a vibrant plea against the death penalty. In vain, after fifteen hours of deliberation, she was condemned to the death penalty and the arguments of her lawyer were passed over in silence, the press focusing on the coup d’etat of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, a few days earlier … In other words that the time was not for abolitionism and that it would take 130 years for “blood justice” to cease in 1981 in France, which was then the last State of the European Economic Community to apply it . 22 of the 34 Breton deputies vote for abolition.

Several Bretons have nevertheless distinguished themselves against the death penalty, starting with Aristide Briand, one of the great politicians of the Third Republic, who will see his law on the question, in 1908, rejected by parliament.

Scalding, hangings and beheading

Cited in the Bible, practiced since prehistoric times, capital punishment seems as old as organized human societies. In Celtic Europe, criminals were thus ritually sacrificed during religious ceremonies. In the Middle Ages, it is regularly applied. The commoners are hanged, while the nobles have the “right” to be beheaded with an ax. This is not easy, the executioner sometimes having to do it twice. Heretics are burnt alive. Note that ducal Brittany has some peculiarities, counterfeiters are thus scalded! Under the Ancien Régime, certain lordships have a right of “high justice”, prerogatives ardently defended by the aristocracy, in particular on the number of patibular forks available to local gibbets … Some of these “pillars of justice” have survived in Lower Brittany, where toponymy, such as “Lann ar Justis” or “porzh anken” preserve the memory of these sad places.

” The widow “

With the French Revolution, the death penalty becomes a state monopoly. The sentence is now carried out thanks to the invention of Joseph Ignace Guillotin, an efficient machine which cuts off the head of the condemned. The “guillotine” is moreover presented as a scientific advance and a “guarantee of equality”. The one nicknamed “the widow” does not she avoid a long and painful death … After the Revolution, several legal developments will reduce the number of executions. Thus, in 1832, the law introduced the notion of “mitigating circumstances”, which allowed jurors to commute the sentence to a more lenient sentence.

Loire-Atlantique and Morbihan in favor of abolition

Author of the reference work on the subject, “Blood justice in Brittany”, Annick Le Douguet notes that 184 death sentences were handed down in Brittany between 1826 and 1900, including a fifth concerning women. As a number of those convicted were pardoned, only 105 of them were executed. There are also departmental differences. Loire-Atlantique (in terms of justice, Brittany still has five departments) and Morbihan seem to be the most hostile to the death penalty. In the twentieth century – apart from the particular period of the Second World War – only about twenty executions took place in Brittany, eleven of which were public. The last death sentence pronounced there was by the Nantes Assize Court on October 6, 1971. Jean-Pierre Boursereau, found guilty of the murder of a police officer, will not be executed, however.

In 1961, an investigation by the journalist of Le Télégramme, Jacques Eliès, had helped to advance in public opinion the idea that the death penalty was only barbaric treatment, which, moreover, has never proved its worth. effectiveness in terms of crime prevention. He thus transcribed the testimony of a bailiff on one of the last capital executions in Finistère: “The condemned, shackled, is led to the guillotine and plastered on a board, before his head is inserted into the telescope. The executioner then intervened: “And, with a finger, sure, which did not tremble, pressed the button. The cleaver slipped with an unexpected force and the head,” as moved by a spring “, explained to me the witnesses. , leaped forward, before falling, grotesque and pitiful, into a basket half-filled with bran. Blood squirted on all sides. So much, said Louis Chicard, former clerk of the parquet floor of Quimper, that I ‘I almost got copiously sprinkled with it during the first beheading which my function made me obligated to attend ”.

To know more

Annick Le Douguet, “Blood justice, the death penalty in Brittany in the 19th and 20th centuries”, Fouesnant, 2007.

Annick Le Douguet, Crimes and justice in Brittany, 19th-20th centuries, Coop Breizh, Spézet, 2011.

in complement

Robert Badinter wrote his speech in Finistère


Roger-Patrice Pellat is credited with this little sentence: “François Mitterrand had two lawyers: Badinter for the law, Dumas for the twisted”. A traveling companion of the socialist leader since the 1960s, Robert Badinter is a fervent abolitionist. In 1973, he published in particular a moving text “The Execution”. Appointed Keeper of the Seals in 1981, he tackled the case as soon as he arrived at the ministry. On September 17, he passionately defends his bill on the abolition of the death penalty, while François Mitterrand, shortly after his enthronement as President of the Republic, had already pardoned those condemned to the death penalty. The parliamentary debate is heated. Badinter invokes the honor of France or argues on a non-dissuasive capital sentence. He is frequently and violently interrupted by the right. The text is adopted and the abolition is definitively promulgated on October 9.

In a customs house in Doëlan

As an anecdote, it was in Doëlan, in Finistère, that, during the summer of 1981, Robert Badinter threw the first drafts of his speech to the Assembly. It was the writer Benoite Groult who lent him his little customs house, so that he could spend a peaceful stay, far from the multiple pressures he was under in Paris. His abolitionist convictions had, in fact, earned him many hateful messages, even threats.

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