On November 28, 1972, the execution of Roger Bontems, a recidivist delinquent, who, it should be noted, had no blood on his hands, made you an “irreducible opponent of the death penalty”. And this, while many countries had already abolished it. How to explain such a delay in France?
This delay can be explained by historical reasons. After the Second World War, came the time of the wars of decolonization which did not accommodate, for the Fourth Republic, the abolition of the death penalty. General de Gaulle was trained at Saint-Cyr and at the École de Guerre, which was not conducive to a culture of abolition. Not that he was particularly repressive, but the question for him was part of the philosophical debate. President Pompidou, who carried the hopes of the abolitionists with regard to his training and his culture, for his part, had Buffet and Bontems guillotined.
France was the last state in the European Community to use the death penalty. I remember the coronation of Amnesty International, in Stockholm, in 1977, where I was part of the French delegation. We appeared to be a unique country: that of the proclamation of human rights which avoided abolition, when the first of these rights is the right to life.
For two centuries, several great names in literature or politics (Hugo, Camus, Jaurès…) have nevertheless supported the cause of abolition…
This shows that the French were not as sensitive to great literature as they liked to say.
What were the polls saying? Did public opinion support the death penalty? If so, in what proportions?
Public opinion, always consulted during an atrocious crime, supported the death penalty. On the day of the abolition debate in the National Assembly, a poll published in a major morning newspaper indicated: “For the death penalty, 62%”.
The left has shown political courage
Was abolishing the death penalty taking the risk of offending public opinion?
Abolition was obviously unpopular. But I want to say it: the French knew from the declarations of Mitterrand and all the programs of the left candidates in the legislative elections that the abolition would be voted if the left became the majority. In the presidential election as in the legislative elections, the French were not taken by surprise. The honor of a candidate is not to keep silent about unpopular measures that he wishes to see taken in the interest of the country. It just requires political courage. This is what the left demonstrated, and in the lead Mitterrand, during the election of May 1981.
Back to the polls: yet they were only the tip of the iceberg. In “The Abolition”, we discover that during the assize trials, there was a climate of hatred. It was the case, one imagines it, in 1977, near the courthouse where was tried Patrick Henry, of which you were the lawyer?
In all the cases where the death penalty was actually incurred in relation to the crime in the decade 1971-1981, I have always seen crowds gathered around the courthouse shouting: “Death! “. In retrospect, I remain pensive in front of the intensity of the hatred of this public against the murderer and also against his lawyers. It was not to the credit of these crowds who should have let justice work in silence.
You have been the target of countless death threats, as have your loved ones …
Yes. And this climate persisted beyond the years of struggle for abolition. Years later, I still received letters of insults and threats every time a bloody crime was committed. Wasn’t that also my work? For ten years, I refused to participate in any debate concerning abolition in France. It was a given, I knew it was irrevocable with regard to our international commitments. It was good that way. I knew that time would have its effect and that abolition was irreversible for a great European democracy. What is the point of talking about it, then?
The last execution of a woman took place in 1949. Then, those condemned to death were all pardoned. Was the death penalty reserved for men? Was it politically incorrect to send a woman to the guillotine?
Indeed, juries composed, until 1945, exclusively of men, very rarely condemned women to the death penalty. The reason was simple: behind the woman in the box, it was first their mother that the jurors saw and we do not guillotine his mother … At the time, the men seemed doomed to war, and therefore to the death. Such a vision dominated society at the time: death was the lot of men, not women.
On September 17, 1981, in what climate did you deliver your speech?
I wrote the speech of September 17, 1981 when I had always improvised my pleadings against the death penalty in Assize Court. The reason was simple: I understood that it was necessary to communicate the text to the press before pronouncing it, otherwise it risked being presented in an incomplete or even erroneous way. I would add that I wanted people to know that I was myself, and not members of my cabinet, the author of this text for which I claimed exclusive authorship. So, I deposited it in the National Archives when they asked for it later.
For many years, the death penalty will have crystallized tensions. In contemporary history, are there other similar examples? It’s hard not to think about the legalization of Voluntary Termination of pregnancy.
With regard to abortion, it should be remembered that the left opposition had declared itself entirely in favor of it and that, paradoxically, it was a fraction of the right-wing majority that opposed it. text wanted by President Giscard d’Estaing and supported by Simone Veil. As for public opinion, it was mostly in favor of abortion, especially women, regardless of party considerations. This was not the case with regard to abolition.
“Abolition is irreversible today, except in the event that a totalitarian regime is established in France”.
Is the ban on the death penalty irreversible?
I would remind you that in 2007, it was President Chirac who asked Parliament to include abolition in the Constitution, which was done by a large majority. In addition, abolition has been the subject of numerous international agreements ratified by France. These treaties are superior to domestic law. This means that abolition is irreversible today, except in the event that a totalitarian regime is established in France, which I refuse to mention.
“L’Abolition” published by Fayard, 327 pages, € 20.90; in Pocket Book, € 7.20.
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