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Updated: March 17, 2010 12:25 IST

Last guillotine goes on show

GUARDIAN NEWS SERVICE
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The guillotine, chosen as the official execution method by French revolutionaries in 1792, continued to be used in France until 1977.
The Hindu Photo Archives The guillotine, chosen as the official execution method by French revolutionaries in 1792, continued to be used in France until 1977.

Victor Hugo spoke of how it is possible to have a certain indifference to the death penalty ‘as long as one has not seen a guillotine with one’s own eyes’. On Tuesday one of the last guillotine’s in France went on show with Hugo’s words written alongside.

Beneath the grey veil used to cloak her awful secrets from the public gaze, “the widow” stands nearly five metres tall and the blade hangs menacingly over a hole designed for a neck. “One can have a certain indifference on the death penalty,” read Victor Hugo’s famous words nearby, “as long as one has not seen a guillotine with one’s own eyes.” When France put an end to capital punishment in 1981, it also bid a not-so-fond farewell to the instrument of death that had taken the lives of thousands. But on Tuesday , at the request of the crusading abolitionist who consigned it to history, one of the last guillotines in France was put on display for all the world to see.

For Robert Badinter, the former Justice Minister who succeeded in outlawing the death penalty during the first year of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency, its appearance at a new exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris is a reason to celebrate.

Exhibition on Crime and Punishment

“The guillotine, this instrument of death, has become the object of a museum,” the Socialist senator told Le Monde this week. “What a symbol and what a victory for the supporters of abolition!” Mr. Badinter, who as a young lawyer witnessed the guillotine “slicing the neck” of a 27-year-old client, Roger Bontems, in La Sante prison in 1972, refers to the machine as his “old enemy”. What was chosen as the official execution method by the revolutionaries of 1792 continued in France until 1977, when Hamida Djandoubi was guillotined at Baumettes prison in Marseille after being convicted on charges of torture, murder and rape.

In 1981, Mr. Badinter, who wrote in his book L’Abolition that seeing executions for himself had turned him into a hard-core opponent of the death penalty, said that a period of time — “not shorter than 25 years” — should elapse before the so-called louisette was seen in public again.

Now, the contraption — in this case a model designed by Leon Alphonse Berger in 1872 — is on show at the entrance of a new exhibition entitled Crime et Chatiment (Crime and Punishment) which runs until the end of June.

Last intact guillotine in mainland France

According to Mr. Badinter, it is the last intact guillotine in mainland France. Two others, both from overseas territories, are housed in the National Prisons Museum in Fontainebleau.

The guillotine’s resurrection, thanks to a nationwide search by Mr. Badinter and curator Jean Clair, who tracked it down in a military bunker in Ecouen, north of Paris, is a fitting contribution to an exhibition full of severed heads, murders and madness.

With more than 450 works, including sculptures by Rodin and paintings by Degas, David and Munch, the museum has sought to use art to trace attitudes to crime, punishment and rehabilitation from the first bloodthirsty days of the revolution.

Mr. Clair has pointed out that when it was suggested by Joseph Ignace Guillotin in 1789, the idea of making mechanical decapitation the uniform means of France’s execution stemmed not from barbarity but from a desire to make death as quick and painless as possible for the victim, whether a prince or a pauper.

Hanging and hacking with hatchets were considered woefully inefficient.

‘Starting point for mass industrial murders’

“This machine was created out of humanist concerns as the least painful and most egalitarian means of death,” Mr. Clair told Le Figaro, adding: “Its precision and ease of use also made it the starting point for mass industrial murders.” As debate swirls in contemporary France over reoffending rates, police powers and the pitiful state of overcrowded prisons, the exhibition has a particular relevance.

One visitor, retired teacher Michele Robelin, expressed surprise, however, that it did not address more pressing issues.

“I think it’s a shame this stops at 1981,” she said, referring to a timeline of the criminal justice system in France. “Thirty years have passed since then and the state of our prisons is dreadful. They have just swept it under the carpet.”

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