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Oil on canvas attributed to Jean-François Garneray
Paris, musée Carnavalet
© Paris Musées
1760 – 1793
Politician, rapporteur of the first bill calling for the abolition of the death penalty in France (1791)
“Consider the immense crowd that is drawn to the public square in the hope of seeing an execution. [...] Gentlemen, it is not for the lesson, but for the spectacle that all these people come running.”

Louis-Michel Lepeletier of Saint-Fargeau

France was the first country in the world to debate the abolition of the death penalty in Parliament,[1] when the Penal Code of 1791 was drafted. The man chosen to present the bill, Louis-Michel Lepeletier of Saint Fargeau, was in favour of full abolition of capital punishment. His main argument was that a prison sentence would contribute to the reintegration and rehabilitation of the convicted person. Lepeletier, Marquis of Saint Fargeau, was elected representative of the Estates General and was a member of the Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. He presented the draft penal code on its behalf. He argued in favour of more lenient sentences, the rehabilitation of convicted persons , and the abolition of the death penalty. During the debates of 23, 30, 31 May and 1 June 1791, representatives employed the entire range of arguments that would animate the assemblies for almost two centuries. All the arguments had been developed by this period.

Louis-Michel Lepeletier was strongly supported by Duport, Pastoret, Condorcet and Robespierre, who delivered in the Chamber what remains today one of the greatest abolitionist speeches: “I have come to ask [...] the legislators - who should be the organs and interpreters of the eternal laws that the divinity dictated to men - to erase from the code of the people of France the laws of blood which command judicial murder, and which their morals and their new constitution reject. I want to prove to them: 1° that the death penalty is essentially unjust; and 2° that it is not the most repressive form of punishment, and that it multiplies crimes far more than it prevents them.”[2] For the abolitionists, the main arguments were the barbarity of capital punishment, the non-deterrent effect of this penalty and the risk of miscarriage of justice.

According to Lepeletier, “One renders the errors of justice irreparable; the other reserves all the rights of innocence from the moment innocence is recognised.”[3] The Christian faith was stressed in terms of the contradiction with the principle of redemption: “One, by taking the life of the criminal, extinguishes the effect of remorse; the other, in imitation of eternal justice, never loses hope of repentance; it gives him the time, the possibility and the incentive to become better.”[4] The bad example set by the state also carried significant weight in his argument: “One hardens public morals; it familiarises the multitude with the sight of blood; the other inspires by the stirring example of the law the greatest respect for the lives of men.”[5] Moreover, he repeatedly stresses the philosophical idea that justice and vengeance should never be confused. To refute his opponents, he justifies his argument by the exemplary nature of a punishment that is both long (“One is scarcely repressive in view of the various aspects of the brevity of its duration”),[6] and public: “The doors of the dungeon will be opened, but it will be to offer the people a powerful lesson. The people will be able to see the convicted prisoner in irons in the depths of his miserable cell and written in large letters above the door they will be able to read the name of the offender, the crime and the judgement. This is the punishment that we propose to replace the death penalty.”[7] Despite these appeals, the majority voted to maintain capital punishment, introducing beheading by guillotine as the method of execution. The Revolution needed the means to eradicate the Ancien Régime. It saw the scaffold as a necessity.

Lepeletier of Saint Fargeau was murdered on 20 January 1793 by a royalist, for having (paradoxically, if we consider the position he took on the abolitionist issue in 1791) voted in favour of the execution of Louis XVI.

The Convention responded to this act of fanaticism by honouring the victim in the Pantheon.


Marie Bardiaux-Vaïente

[1] National Constituent Assembly, which lasted from 9 July 1789 to 30 September 1791.
[2] Robespierre, Le Moniteur universel.
[3] Le Peletier, marquis de Saint-Fargeau, « Le Moniteur universel ».
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

Ending the Death Penalty

Author: Andrew Hammel
Publication Date: 2010
Edited by: Palgrave Macmillan

Examining the successful movements to abolish capital punishment in the UK, France, and Germany, this book examines the similarities in the social structure and political strategies of abolition movements in all three countries. An in-depth comparative analysis with other countries assesses chances of success of abolition elsewhere.

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