As the country mourn the deaths of over 80 people who lost their lives following the Nice truck attack, Jean-Marie Le Pen told a press conference that the country “must restore the death penalty for terrorists with decapitation”.
OK, so maybe he didn’t use the word “guillotine,” but what other decapitation method has existed in the country?
Most commonly associated with the fate of Marie Antoinette and other doomed members of the 18th-century aristocracy, Charles Dickens described it with cynical irony in A Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the popular theme for jests; it was the best cure for headache, it infallibly prevented hair from turning gray, it imparted a peculiar delicacy to the complexion, it was the National Razor which shaved close: who kissed La Guillotine looked through the little window and sneezed into the sack.”
The gruesome device was retired officially in 1977, following the execution of a convicted murderer named Hamida Djandoubi. Four years later, the country threw out the death penalty altogether.
Since then, France’s anti-death-penalty stance has ingrained itself into the fabric of the country’s value system. Each year, the nation participates in the annual “World Day Against the Death Penalty,” and a statement on the official French government website reads:
“France has shown a constant resolute commitment to the universal abolition of the death penalty. This is one of its human rights priorities at an international level.”
So while it may be easy to dismiss Le Pen’s comments as extremist bluster (earlier this year he was even booted out of the party he founded—by his daughter, the current leader) a local businessman in the country’s southeastern Var region made a similar statement by way of a large highway billboard. “Mr. President,” it reads. “Let’s change the law. Death for terrorists and their accomplices.”
“When they [the terrorists] machine-gun 500 people on a cafe terrace, yes, we want to shout out that it’s necessary to adapt our laws,” Michel-Ange Flori, the man behind the controversial sign, told the TV network France 3.
A French anti-death-penalty group argues that reinstating capital punishment would be useless for preventing similar attacks, adding that most French share the organization’s view.
“The majority of the public understands that these people are ready to die, and they’re willing to go to the very end,” Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, the director of the Paris-basedEnsemble Contre la Peine de Mort, told The Daily Beast, pointing out that most terrorists kill themselves during an attack or are killed by security forces shortly after.
“The idea that the death penalty will deter terrorism is ridiculous, because terrorists are not afraid to die. Death is part of their ideology.”
“We have received fewer emails and messages discussing a return the death penalty compared to after the Charlie Hebdo attacks,” he added. “And even then there were very few.”
But pro-capital-punishment rhetoric is not limited to France.
“That appears to be a response that we see among politicians in all nations,” Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, told The Daily Beast. “So when some extraordinary act of violence occurs, it is also certain that some politician somewhere will come up with a response like that.”
He added: “France is a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, and under that treaty the death penalty is barred for all domestic offenses.”
Despite Le Pen’s apparent wish otherwise, it would appear that the guillotine won’t be brought out of retirement any time soon.