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Robert Badinter obituary: French justice minister who dismantled the guillotine and decriminalised homosexuality

‘The nation owes him a lot,’ said president Emmanuel Macron

Born March 30th, 1928

Died February 9th, 2024

Robert Badinter, a French lawyer and former justice minister who led the fight to abolish the death penalty in France and became one of the country’s most respected intellectual figures, has died aged 95.

“He is a touchstone for many generations,” president Emmanuel Macron said, hailing Badinter as a “sage” and a “conscience” for France. “The nation owes him a lot.”


Badinter spent decades as an esteemed defence lawyer but was best known for enacting the 1981 law that abolished capital punishment in France, one of his very first acts as justice minister in the Socialist government of president François Mitterrand.

He achieved this in the face of wide public support for the death penalty at the time. The fight against capital punishment stood at the core of his lifelong defence of human rights against oppression and cruelty. It was also under Badinter’s watch, in 1982, that France decriminalised homosexuality.

In The Execution, a 1973 book, he vividly recalled “the sharp snap” of the guillotine blade as he witnessed the execution of one of his clients, an inmate sentenced to death for complicity in the murder of a guard and a nurse after a hostage-taking in prison.

The traumatising experience led Badinter to crusade against the death penalty. Decades later, in a 2010 interview with the New York Times, he still referred to the guillotine as “my old enemy”.

Badinter was justice minister from 1981 to 1986, and then became the president of France’s Constitutional Council, a position he held for nine years. The council reviews laws to ensure that they conform with the constitution. He also served in the senate as a Socialist lawmaker from 1995 to 2011, and for many, especially on the left, he progressively came to resemble the conscience of the republic, a fervent defender of the rule of law. “Deeply committed to justice, an advocate of abolition, a man of law and passion, he leaves a void that matches his legacy: immeasurable,” Éric Dupond-Moretti, France’s justice minister – and a long-time defence lawyer himself – said.

Badinter was born in Paris to Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia, a region in eastern Europe that now straddles Moldova and Ukraine, and raised to respect the liberal values and tolerance of the French republic.

But in 1943, when Badinter was 15, his father, Simon, was deported from Lyon and never returned from the Nazi death camps. Several other members of his family, including one of his grandmothers, were also killed by the Nazis.

The lesson for Badinter was not that the promises of the republic were empty but that constant vigilance was needed to honour and defend them. The wartime Vichy government in France that collaborated with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews constituted the ultimate betrayal of the republic.

Defining himself as “republican, secular and Jewish”, he carried within him for the rest of his long life the mark of his family’s loss in a moment of French betrayal. “I am French, a French Jew – the two cannot be dissociated,” he told Le Monde in 2018. “These are not just words; this is the lived reality.”

His death comes at a time when the whole country has lurched right and the party’s influence has radically diminished

Badinter and other family members fled to a small town in the French Alps where residents sheltered them. After the war he studied literature and law in Paris and received a master of arts from Columbia University in New York. He started his career as a lawyer in 1951 and later battled to avoid the death penalty for several convicts, while also teaching university classes.

As justice minister, Badinter abolished special courts that operated outside the normal framework of the law – such as one that only judged crimes against the state – and he passed reforms to improve living conditions in prison, even as opponents on the right and the far right railed against him for being too lenient with criminals.

Badinter was part of a government that refashioned the Socialist Party as a centre-left movement and abandoned the wholesale nationalisation of industries, but his death comes at a time when the whole country has lurched right and the party’s influence has radically diminished.

He was particularly close to Mitterrand, who turned to Badinter in 1984 to countersign, in strict secrecy, the document in which the president recognised Mazarine Pingeot, his daughter from an adulterous relationship.

Badinter’s first marriage was to Anne Vernon, a French actress. He is survived by his second wife, Élisabeth, a French philosopher and author who is vice-chairwoman of the supervisory board at Publicis, an advertising and public relations firm, and by their three children.

To the last, Badinter prodded France to assume its responsibilities in the quest for universal human dignity and peace. In his last interview, 10 months ago, he alluded to the conflict in Ukraine, telling France Inter radio that “We French, we do not realise enough that there is a war in Europe”.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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