Remembering Robert Badinter, Who Transformed France’s Justice System

France's former justice minister, who abolished the death penalty and decriminalized homosexuality, has died, aged 95.

Robert Badinter, France’s former justice minister who abolished the death penalty, decriminalized homosexuality and transformed the country’s justice system, has died, aged 95. The following interview was first published in Mastermind 6, September 2019. In it, Badinter recounts the month of  August 1981, which he spent in a cottage overlooking the sea in Brittany, writing a speech to end capital punishment.

At the end of a narrow coastal path studded with rocks and roots, you have to climb 14 steps, avoiding the mud puddles, before you spy through the old oak trees a little green fence on which the name of the place – Beg Roudou (“Fishnet Point” in Breton) – is clumsily spelled out.

In August 1981, Robert and Élisabeth Badinter took refuge, incognito, in this picturesque cottage with granite walls and views of the water from every window. The quiet, isolated place was perfectly suited to the security requirements of François Mitterrand’s new minister of justice and felt perfectly safe. Badinter had some difficult holiday homework to do: write a speech on the abolition of the death penalty, his life’s cause, which he would have to defend before the National Assembly the following September.

Collage by Faye & Gina. Pages from Robert Badinter’s speech on the abolition of the death penalty. Photo: Joel Robine/AFP.

The picture-postcard house overlooking the small port of Doëlan, not far from Lorient, was lent to them by a couple of close friends, journalist Paul Guimard and writer Benoîte Groult. “My friendship with Paul Guimard dates back to the 1970s,” Robert Badinter told Mastermind. “At the time, he worked for L’Express, a well-known left-wing news magazine. My first articles were published there, and that’s where we got to know each other. We shared the same non-Communist leftist sensibility.” Six years earlier, Groult, a friend of Badinter’s wife Élisabeth, had written a book at Beg Roudou: Ainsi Soit-elle (As She Is), which became a feminist bible for tens of thousands of readers.

In August 1981, Badinter settled in every morning at the table on the stone terrace. The mist mingled with the scent of the roses and hydrangeas in the garden, and wherever he looked, the landscape gave him a feeling of tranquility. He wrote in blue or green ink, depending on the day. “That text did not cost me any effort or anxiety,” he says. “The sentences flowed almost spontaneously from the pen.”

From time to time, he looked out to sea and watched the boats gliding toward the ocean and the gulls chasing the trawlers at the end of the cove. When he had written what he considered to be enough pages, Badinter would take a break and leave his seat. “I swam regularly,” he said. “The weather was great in Brittany during the summer of 1981.”

In the evening, the minister reread his notes and tore up half of them, preparing to get back to work the next day. He did not want to write a classic ministerial speech, but the former lawyer did not want his intervention to be like a court plea, either.

He edited the text obsessively until the time came to make the speech he saw as “a final call to free our justice system from the grip of death,” all the while keeping in mind the infinitely soothing vision of the ballet of ships returning to the harbor, their sails trembling in the sky. Thirty-eight summers later, he still feels the delight he took “in the exceptional sunshine of that year. It was superb.”

This feature has been translated from the French.

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