Robert Badinter, Architect of France’s Abolition of the Death Penalty, Passes Away

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Robert Badinter

Renowned former Minister of Justice Robert Badinter, celebrated for spearheading the death penalty abolition in France during François Mitterrand’s presidency, has passed away. He died overnight on Thursday, confirmed by his collaborator, Aude Napoli. Badinter, a former president of the Constitutional Council, was 95 years old.

“The death penalty signifies that the State arrogates the right to dispose of the citizen’s life, implicating the state’s secret power over the citizen’s life and death. This, I refuse,” declared Robert Badinter in 1976, demonstrating unwavering conviction rooted in a family history haunted by the Holocaust.

Raised in a Jewish family originating from Bessarabia—now part of Moldova, situated between Romania and Ukraine—Badinter’s familial narrative was shaped by persecution. His maternal grandmother, escaping pogroms and anti-Semitism under the Tsarist regime, fled westward in the 19th century. His father, Simon, immigrated to France after the Bolshevik Revolution and was naturalized in 1928, the year of Robert’s birth.

Residing in Paris, the Badinter family sought refuge in the free zone during the Occupation, yet fell victim to Nazi occupation when Lyon was overrun in 1942. Simon Badinter was arrested in a Gestapo raid ordered by Klaus Barbie, leading to his deportation to a concentration camp in Poland, where he perished in 1943. Robert, then 15 years old, narrowly escaped a similar fate.

Following the war, Badinter pursued studies in law, literature, and sociology, subsequently qualifying as a lawyer at 22. Throughout his legal career, he defended diverse clients, ranging from Coco Chanel to individuals accused of common crimes.

Embracing an anti-death penalty stance early on, Badinter fervently advocated against capital punishment, first in courtrooms and later, starting in 1981, as Minister of Justice under Socialist President François Mitterrand. On September 17 that year, he delivered a stirring address to the National Assembly.

For two hours, Badinter passionately persuaded legislators to defy public opinion and align with historical progress: “France is great because it was the first in Europe to abolish torture, despite cautious voices asserting that French justice would be disarmed without it, that without torture, the virtuous would be delivered to the wicked.

France was among the first nations in the world to abolish slavery, a crime still staining humanity. It so happens that France, despite many courageous efforts, was one of the last countries, almost the last in Western Europe, to abolish the death penalty… Tomorrow, thanks to you, French justice will no longer kill. Tomorrow, to our common shame, there will be no more stealth executions at dawn, under the black canopy, in French prisons. Tomorrow, the bloody pages of our justice will be turned.”

A Tireless Advocate

On October 9, the death penalty was officially abolished in France. During his tenure as Minister of Justice, Badinter also advanced LGBTQ+ rights before serving as President of the Constitutional Council from 1986 to 1995.

In 2021, at 93, he remained resolute in his convictions. On the 40th anniversary of France’s abolition of the death penalty, Robert Badinter underscored the universality of his cause: “The death penalty is destined to vanish from this world because it is a disgrace to humanity.”

Soukaina Sghir

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