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Death penalty: before the abolition, years of combat interspersed with violence – 40 years since the abolition of the death penalty

“23 years is young to die”, Lucien Boulay slips to his lawyer, a few moments before being guillotined. It is January 14, 1938. Convicted of the rape and murder of Thérèse Rouault, nine years old, he saw his appeal for presidential pardon rejected. The scaffold was erected at the entrance to Saint-Brieuc prison. At 7:12 a.m., the ax fell. In the crowd, some whistle, others applaud. This is the last public execution in Saint-Brieuc. Because, from 1939, the Executive will publish a decree suppressing the publicity of the executions, which will henceforth take place out of sight, far from the hysterical crowds demanding revenge.

Murderous hostage-taking in Clairvaux

In the dead of night, behind the walls of the prisons, the executions continue. But at a slower pace: for example, in 1962 and 1966, there are none. And, at the end of the 1960s, 58% of French people were in favor of abolishing the death penalty. But, in 1971, “everything changes”, indicates Jean-Yves Le Naour, author of “History of the abolition of the death penalty”. The hostage-taking in Clairvaux prison is the cause. A nurse and a guard have their throats cut. The following year, Claude Buffet and Roger Bontems are condemned to death. But only the first one has blood on his hands. Defended by Robert Badinter, the second does not escape the death penalty, nor the guillotine, because Georges Pompidou does not pardon him. For the lawyer, this is a turning point: “Until now, I had been a supporter of abolition. From now on, I was an irreducible opponent of the death penalty ”, he writes in“ The Abolition ”.

“From time to time, dropping a head made it possible to allay popular anguish,” says Jean-Yves Le Naour. (C. Valenti)

“It is the beginning of the soundocracy”

It is also at this time that “the polls turn around”, explains Jean-Yves Le Naour. “This is the start of the Sondeocracy. It is a time of demagogy and hypocrisy. The death penalty in no way protects against crime (1). We know that, but there are the polls. “So,” from time to time, dropping a head helps allay popular anguish (2). We want the population to believe that they are safe ”.

“The jurors did not want to be responsible for a legal crime.”

But “on this issue, the polls mean nothing. The real poll is the verdict of the jurors ”who, on numerous occasions, grant extenuating circumstances to the accused. This allows them to escape the guillotine. “The jurors didn’t want to be held responsible for a legal crime. “

” To death ! “

“Popular anguish” manifests itself during the assize trials. In 1977, this is the case during that of Patrick Henry for the kidnapping and murder of little Philippe Bertrand. “The climate there is appalling. Outside, the demonstrators shout: “Death! “. For them, Patrick Henry is the filthy beast. Jurors are encouraged to vote for death, ”says Jean-Yves Le Naour. But his lawyers, Messrs Robert Bocquillon and Robert Badinter, “save his head”. The police fearing an explosion of anger, Robert Badinter leaves the courthouse in the back of a police car, “like a criminal,” he says. Because, for the demonstrators, “Robert Badinter and Patrick Henry, it is the same thing. The lawyer is always assimilated to his client, but everyone has the right to be defended, ”explains Jean-Yves Le Naour.

“Punishments promised to my wife and my children”

But it has been several months since the lawyer has been the subject of countless death threats. “My mail always carried the same scum of death threats, of tortures promised to my wife and my children,” he confides. One evening in spring 76, a homemade bomb also exploded on his landing.

The climate is deleterious. Robert Badinter is the bête noire of supporters of the death penalty who, for some, confuse abolitionism with an apology for assassination. This is the case of the far-right weekly “Minute”: “Me Badinter does not content himself with defending the assassins, he loves them”, we can read there.

But he is not the only one to suffer this wrath. When abolitionists distribute leaflets in the street, it provokes skin reactions. “Some spit on them,” says Jean-Yves Le Naour.

Mitterrand’s “courage”

In March 1981, François Mitterrand, presidential candidate, “undoubtedly showed courage in speaking out against the death penalty,” he said. “He defies the polls and shows that he is a true statesman. We know what follows: Robert Badinter, appointed Keeper of the Seals, will vote for abolition in September 1981.

Death penalty: before the abolition, years of combat interspersed with violence – 40 years since the abolition of the death penalty

1. In “The Abolition”, Robert Badinter does not say anything else: “I endeavored to establish (…) that, wherever the death penalty had been abolished, bloody crime had not increased” , he says.

2. Under Georges Pompidou, three men were beheaded, as well as under the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

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