Off with the guillotine

After a historic, emotional debate, France's National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to abolish the death penalty Friday, ending the 190-year history of the guillotine, ominously known in French slang as the "widow," Monitor contributor William Dowell reports.

The decision, which passed by 369 votes to 116, makes France the last country in Western Europe to end the death penalty.

A recent public opinion poll showed 62 percent of the French public favoring death sentences. But abolishing the penalty has been a goal of French Socialists for years, and there was no question that with their current majority , the action would take a high priority. The socialists lay part of the blame for public support of the death penalty on the campaign tactics of the French right, which they accuse of tyring to inflame the law-and-other issue to gain political advantage.

Abolishing the guillotine is an even greater victory for France's new justice minister, Robert Badinter. A gripping news photograph in 1972 showed Mr. Badinter as a young lawyer shielding a sobbing fellow lawyer after witnessing the beheading of an accused murderer whom they had tried to defend.

In the last seven years, three people have been executed. As Badinter eloquently pointed out in arguements before the National Assembly, it would not have made much difference to French society if any of the three had been allowed to finish out their days in prison. His impassioned speech before the Assembly drew an ovation from both left and right.

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