Robert Badinter, the man who abolished the death penalty in France in 1981 while he was justice minister under socialist president François Mitterrand, died this Friday at the age of 95. This jurist, who during his youth was a defender of prisoners sentenced to capital punishment, was a member of the French Socialist Party, minister between 1981 and 1986, and a great moral reference for France.
He was born in Paris to a Jewish family from Romania and his father was arrested by the Gestapo during World War II, when Badinter was only 14, and deported to the Sobibor extermination camp, where he was murdered.
One of his first actions as Minister of Justice was to introduce a bill to abolish the guillotine. Three people were executed in France between 1976 and 1977 under the presidency of Mitterrand’s conservative predecessor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. After a heated debate in the Senate, on October 9, 1981, the law abolishing the death penalty for all crimes was officially promulgated.
French President Emmanuel Macron wrote in X: “Robert Badinter has always been on the side of the Enlightenment. “He was a figure of the century, a republican conscience, the French spirit.” A Jewish intellectual, Badinter was the target of hatred from the French right, hatred partly tinged with anti-Semitism. In 1982, he asked the courts to crack down on organized crime and terrorism, while avoiding overloading prisons with petty criminals. Between March 1986 – when the Mitterrand camp lost the legislative elections to a conservative coalition led by Jacques Chirac – and March 1995, he served as president of the Constitutional Council. He was then a member of the French Senate between 1995 and 2011.
In an interview given to this newspaper in 2010, Robert Badinter recalled that the end of the guillotine against dominant public opinion had earned him “the honor of being the most unpopular minister in France”. “When he entered a restaurant with Elisabeth (his wife, a famous feminist with whom he shared fights), it was unbearable. Someone was always shouting: “The murderers are outside!”, he would say, imitating the crier.
In September 1981, when the law was passed, 62% of French people were in favor of the death penalty. Two years later, in May 1983, two police officers were killed in the center of Paris by two robbers and another police officer was seriously injured. A few days later, a thousand police demonstrated in the capital and several hundred in various provincial towns, chanting: “Badinter, go to prison; Badinter, murderer! The Minister of Justice at the time said that firmness was not enough to resolve the problems. And in response to accusations from the right that with the arrival of the socialists there would have been more violence, the government provided figures: during its first two years in power, 17 agents died on duty. While in the previous two years, 30 police officers were murdered, almost double. And this, despite the fact that the death penalty was in force and the exceptional courts that Mitterrand’s executive would take responsibility for abolishing.
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In this interview, he continues to plead for the extinction of the death penalty throughout the world: “Age does not exclude passion. There are causes for which I will fight as long as I have the breath, such as the abolition of the death penalty, the conditions of prisoners or the fight against crimes against humanity.
At 94, Badinter spoke out in another interview conducted at his Paris home in April 2022 against the massacre carried out weeks earlier by Russian soldiers in the Ukrainian town of Bucha. “The Russian offensive in Ukraine,” he warned, represents “the moment of truth for international criminal justice and international law.”
Badinter loved the piano, he considered himself a Goya enthusiast and, when he was minister, he visited the houses of famous writers with Mitterrand: “We had a common passion for the places where writers wrote, so we continued Saturdays at the houses of Montesquieu, Victor Hugo, Montaigne… And along the way, see churches. Mitterrand had a passion, which I do not share, for cemeteries, and he began: ‘Look, what a beautiful tomb, it belonged to an old archbishop…’,” Badinter told this newspaper, imitating the voice of Mitterrand. “I told him, ‘Come on, I’ve seen three already.’ I miss him a lot, because we had so much fun… It seems absurd… Even at the Elysée. Politics is not always sad. It’s a mistake. Especially when you have a lot of humor, as was the case with Mr. Mitterrand.”