Crime and Punishment in France
Capital punishment in Revolutionary France
Capital punishment was practiced in France from the Middle Ages until 1977, when the last execution took place by guillotine. This was the only legal method since the French Revolution (with the exception of firing squad for crimes against the safety of the state). The death penalty was abolished in French law in 1981. It is now also forbidden by the French constitution, and by several human rights treaties to which France is a party.
Prior to 1791, under the "Ancien Régime", there existed a variety of means of capital punishment in France, depending on the crime and the status of the condemned person.
• Hanging was the most common punishment.
• Decapitation by sword was reserved for nobles.
• Burning for heretics and arsonists.
• Breaking wheel for brigands and murderers. The convict could be strangled before having his limbs broken or after, depending on the atrocity of his crime.
• Death by boiling for counterfeiters.
• Dismemberment for high treason, parricides, regicides.
The French Revolution marked the end of hanging by requiring all executions to be accomplished by means of the blade, rather than reserving it only for nobles. However, as beheading by a hand-held axe or blade was a comparatively inefficient and unreliable method of execution compared with hanging, a more humane method was needed.
On 10 October 1789, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, stood before the National Assembly and proposed the following six articles in favour of the reformation of capital punishment:
• Article 1: All offences of the same kind will be punished by the same type of punishment irrespective of the rank or status of the guilty party.
• Article 2: Whenever the Law imposes the death penalty, irrespective of the nature of the offence, the punishment shall be the same: decapitation, effected by means of a simple mechanism.
• Article 3: The punishment of the guilty party shall not bring discredit upon or discrimination against his family.
• Article 4: No one shall reproach a citizen with any punishment imposed on one of his relatives. Such offenders shall be publicly reprimanded by a judge.
• Article 5: The condemned person's property shall not be confiscated.
• Article 6: At the request of the family, the corpse of the condemned man shall be returned to them for burial and no reference to the nature of death shall be registered.
A committee was formed under Antoine Louis, physician to the King and Secretary to the Academy of Surgery. Guillotin was also on the committee. The group was influenced by the Scottish Maiden which can be seen in the National Museum in Edinburgh and the Halifax Gibbet, which was fitted with an axe head weighing 7 pounds 12 ounces (3.5 kg). Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, designed a beheading machine and employed Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype. Antoine Louis is also credited with the design of the prototype.
The guillotine was successful as it was considered a humane form of execution. It was seen to deliver an immediate death without risk of suffocation. Furthermore, having only one method of civil execution was seen as an expression of equality among citizens. The device was first used on the highwayman Nicolas Jacques Pelletier on 25 April 1792.
Public executions were the norm and continued until 1939. From the mid-19th century, the usual time of day for executions changed from around 3 pm to morning and then to dawn. Executions had been carried out in large central public spaces such as market squares but gradually moved towards the local prison. In the early 20th century, the guillotine was set up just outside the prison gates.
The Reign of Terror
The period from June 1793 to July 1794 in France is known as the Reign of Terror or simply "the Terror". The upheaval following the overthrow of the monarchy, invasion by foreign monarchist powers and the revolt in the Vendée combined to throw the nation into chaos and the government into paranoia. Most of the democratic reforms of the revolution were suspended and the Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced thousands to the guillotine. Former King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793. Maximilien Robespierre became one of the most powerful men in the government, and the figure most associated with the Terror. Nobility and commoners, intellectuals, politicians and prostitutes, all were liable to be executed on little or no grounds; suspicion of "crimes against liberty" was enough to earn one an appointment with "Madame Guillotine" or "The National Razor". Estimates of the death toll are about 16,500 by guillotine throughout the country and another 25,000 summary executions.
At this time, Paris executions were carried out in the Place de la Revolution (former Place Louis XV and current Place de la Concorde); the guillotine stood in the corner near the Hôtel Crillon where the statue of Brest can be found today. Most of the victims received an unceremonious trip to the guillotine in an open cart (the tumbrel). There were also portable guillotines that could be set up in other towns.
For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors sold programs listing the names of those scheduled to die. Many people came day after day and vied for the best locations from which to observe the proceedings. There were well known regulars such as the knitting women (tricoteuses) who incited the crowd. Parents often brought their children. By the end of the Terror, the crowds had thinned drastically. Repetition had stalled even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored.
Eventually, the National Convention had enough of the Terror, partially fearing for their own lives, and turned against Maximilien Robespierre. He was arrested, and on 28 July 1794, was executed in the same fashion as those whom he had condemned. This arguably ended the Terror, as the French expressed their discontent with Robespierre's policy by guillotining him.
The French legal system after the Revolution
After the Revolution, when Napoleon became emperor, the Code Napolean was set up which was a new legal system covering all legal matters even the role of fathers in family life.
The French legal system is an inquisitorial system where the court is actively involved in investigating the facts of the case, as opposed to an adversarial system as in the UK where the role of the court is primarily that of an impartial referee between the prosecution and the defence. Inquisitorial systems are used in some countries with civil legal systems as opposed to common law systems.
In the inquisitorial system, the judge conducts a public inquisition or investigation of a crime. Judges can question witnesses, interrogate suspects, order searches and finally declare the verdict and decide on the penalty. Their role is not to prosecute the accused, but to gather facts to reach the correct verdict, and as such their duty is to examine all the evidence. When declaring a verdict, the judge must also release the reasoning explaining the verdict. Any perceived fault in the judge's reasoning (due to logic, science or newly discovered evidence) is grounds for appeal by both the prosecution and defence.
In practice examining judges are used for serious crimes such as murder, rape, embezzlement and corruption. The majority of crimes are investigated directly by law enforcement agencies (police or gendarmerie) under the supervision of the Office of Public Prosecutions which is supervised by the Minister of Justice.