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Robert Badinter, the lawyer who fought to end the death penalty in France

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After many decades of legal wrangling, France finally abolished the death penalty in 1981.The legislation was passed under socialist president François Mitterrand, but the flagbearer for the move was an indefatigable lawyer who was to become minister for justice, Robert Badinter.

“I have the honour, on behalf of the Government of the French Republic, to submit to the National Assembly the abolition of capital punishment in France.” This statement by France’s then justice minister, Robert Badinter, marked the official end of the death penalty in France.

When François Mitterrand became president in May 1981, he appointed lawyer and activist Badinter as his justice minister. Abolition of the death penalty became a priority for the new socialist government, but it was met with strong resistance in some quarters.

Badinter had witnessed firsthand the gruesome finality of the guillotine and was determined to push the law through. He said he who could no longer bear decapitations, including that of his own client, Roger Bontems, who was executed for complicity in a lethal armed robbery.

“When I saw Bontems being executed – executing is cutting a living man in two! – I swore I wouldn’t just be opposed to the death penalty, I would become an activist,” he later said.

France’s National Assembly eventually passed the legislation on September 18, 1981, with 363 votes in favour and 117 against. Weeks later, capital punishment was formally abolished by the Act of October 9, 1981.

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