Who was Robert Badinter, the most important Frenchman of whom you never heard?

At the end of a class on the fundamental principles of law that I was teaching to first-year law students, a group of students approached me and asked: “But who is this Robert Badinter you speak of so often?”

Every time I bring up Badinter, I know I am about to teach them about values such as the right to life, respect for individuals, human dignity, equality, and individual freedom. As a legal historian, such moments are a chance for me to introduce the younger generation of the early 21st century to a rare man who, throughout his life, fought against injustice. On 9 February, he died in Paris, aged 95.

A national homage

To say that Badinter’s death marked the end of an era for France is not an overstatement. The next day, not a single national daily failed to dedicate its front page to Badinter. Le Monde printed a black and white picture of him, striding confidently out of the council of ministers in 1981, his head seemingly crowned with a chandelier. Libération opted for a portrait in his later years, titled “Peine absolue” – a pun on a French phrase that means at once “capital punishment”, but also “Absolute sadness”. Others hailed “Un homme juste” (“A man of justice”). Even the conservative Le Figaro, a staunch opponent for most of his life, bowed to his “passion for justice”.

Some of the French press covers on 10 February. Natalie SauerAuthor provided (no reuse)

On Wednesday 14 February, the government held a ceremony of national homage Place Vendôme, Paris, where the Justice Ministry is located. His widow, the French feminist and Enlightenment historian Elisabeth Badinter, sat at the front row close to their three children. Hundreds of people stood under the drizzle to watch the coffin draped with the French flag, as French president Emmanuel Macron announced his entry to the Pantheon, in which the remains of distinguished French citizens lay.

A very French upbringing

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Badinter was born on 30 March 1928 in Paris. In 1989, he described his father, who died following deportation during the Second World War, as:

“one of those young intellectual Russian students of before 1914, who loved France with an intensity that we find difficult to conceive. When I was a boy, he would tell me how poor students in Moscow, each possessed by the revolutionary ideal, would head to the French embassy, which was the only place where one could protest because it was an ally country. There, they would sing the Marseillaise [the French national hymn] and cry out ‘Long live France, long live the Republic’. Around the embassy there were Cossacks, whip in hand.”

Badinter would grow up in a household steeped in the ideals of the French Republic, in which it was forbidden to speak any other language than French. Reading of 19th-century French writers such as Emile Zola or Stendhal was mandatory. Such ideals would also form the backbone of his relationship to his wife, Elisabeth. Fiercely reserved about their relationship and reluctant to appear in the media as a couple, they would go on to write one book together on French revolutionary philosopher, Nicolas de Condorcet.

Following a doctorate in law in 1952, Badinter worked first as an attorney, then a professor, and finally in politics.

Consigning the guillotine to museums

In France and abroad, Badinter is first and foremost known as the man who abolished the death penalty in 1981.

There had been talk of abolishing the capital punishment since the French Revolution. Already in 1791, deputies had debated on whether to include it in the country’s first criminal code. Politician and jurist Louis-Michel le Peletier, Marquis of Saint-Fargeau (1760-1793), believed its gruesome spectacles perverted society, accustoming it to the sight of violence and blood, while French lawyer and revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) sought to refute the very principle of the death penalty.

In the following century, French novelist Victor Hugo would take up the baton, devoting two novels to the subject, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1829) and Claude Gueux (1834). Badinter, who called him the “great” Hugo, would go on to adapt the second as an opera, Claude.

True to that intellectual heritage, Badinter always stood against the death penalty. Despite this, in 1972 he was unable to save a client, Roger Bontems. While Bontems did not have any blood on his hands, he was found guilty for complicity in the murder of a nurse and porter, and went to the guillotine. As Dominique Missika and Maurice Szafran recount in their biography, Bontems’ death transformed Badinter from a “partisan against the death penalty” into an “activist”.

In 1977, his defence of Patrick Henry, who is convicted for the kidnapping and murder of 7-year-old Philippe Bertrand, is seen as a turning point in the history of the abolition of the death penalty. Haunted by Bontems’ death, for 90 minutes Badinter weighed in with all his might on the conscience of the juries. “You are alone, and there will not be any presidential pardon,” he said, appealing to every one of them “You, you, and you”.

On 14 February, Emmanual Macron described him as “a soul crying out, a force wrenching life from the clutch of death.” Badinter saved Henry’s life, and would go on to save five more until becoming Justice Minister under President François Mittérand in 1981.

The abolition would represent one of his first tasks in government. On 18 September of that year, the French parliament ended capital punishment, with 363 votes against 117. It took Badinter courage to advocate for such a cause: during the 1981 presidential campaign, a survey revealed 63% of French people opposed its abolition.

The national tribute to Robert Badinter. Ludovic Marin/AFP

Making prison conditions more humane

It was also Badinter who decriminalised homosexuality in August 1982. He would go on to repeal a set of other repressive legislations, including the “Anti-troublemakers” law (December 23, 1981), which held protest organisers responsible for any damage caused and was widely perceived as targeting trade unions. Also dismantled was the “Security and Freedom” law (June 10, 1983), which extended police powers to demand IDs and restricted the scope of convicts’ defence.

To Badinter, prison was not meant to replace the death penalty. Every individual, regardless of his or her actions, was redeemable, and hope for release should never be taken away. As minister of justice, Badinter introduced several reforms to humanise inmates’ living conditions, such as TVs in cells and the end of screens in visitation booths. To combat delinquency, relieve overcrowded prisons, provide alternatives to imprisonment for minor offences, he proposed non-custodial sentences such as day fines or community service.

One of his other great accomplishments was improving citizens’ access to justice. He expanded the right for associations to become civil parties in cases of crimes against humanity, war crimes (June 10, 1983), and racially motivated crimes. He paved the way for greater recognition of victims, long neglected by the justice system, by creating the first victim-support service within his ministry, providing them with a more prominent role during trials. He also worked toward France’s recognising the right for any litigant to appeal to the European Commission and Court of Human Rights.

Robert Bandinter with the Enlightenment historian and feminist Elisabeth Badinter, his wife, in March 1988 in Paris. Daniel Janin/AFP

The duty of remembrance

As the son of Holocaust victims, Badnter cared intensely about history. As minister of justice, he once requested the file of notorious criminal Henri Désiré Landru, who was sentenced to death in 1921 for the murder of 10 women, only to find that the file had not been archived. In a ministry that showed little concern for its memory and heritage, he established the French Association for the History of Justice. The two were thus linked, and with this objective in mind, in 1985 he authorised the audiovisual recording of certain trials.

In 1983, Bolivia extradited to France the head of the Lyon Gestapo, Klaus Barbie, who in 1943 arrested and tortured French resistant Jean Moulin. The preamble of the law indicates that trials with “eventful, political, or sociological dimensions deserving preservation for history” should be recorded. Preserving filmed records of major trials for history has filled in, through images, what procedural archives do not reveal. These images enrich written accounts and provide new dimensions for research, capturing not only pleadings but also what only images can convey: gazes, gestures, silences, emotions.

Human dignity knows no borders or limits. It is one of the most important fundamental rights, which continues uninterrupted even after the death of individuals. Robert Badinter knew that humanity’s march toward human rights would never be complete. This is what he leaves to future generations because he never ceased to believe in the universality and indivisibility of human rights. This is his accomplished work of justice; it is up to us to ensure its continuation.

the Sylvie Humbert / Historian of justice and law, Institut catholique de Lille (ICL)

Article edited the 21 February 2024

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