Jean Jaurès 1894
(Socialist Deputy for Albi, France)

Capital Punishment

Source: Justice, 8th September 1894, p. 2;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

From the extreme south of France, whence I send this article, I am ignorant whether, after the unlooked for respite obtained by his counsel, the capital sentence on the Abbe Bruneau has been commuted, or whether, on the contrary, he has undergone the death penalty. Perhaps the executioner, that other king, is, like Louis XIV., obliged to wait. Perhaps, on the contrary, he has been served with his familiar ration, and has ceased to grumble. Whichever way it may be it is our duty to protest once more against the legal ignominy of the death penalty. Little does it matter to us what clerical intrigues have been going on to put off the execution. The question rests much higher, and it is precisely because it concerns a priest, and because none of us can be suspected of being in a clerical conspiracy, that we must raise our protest on this as on every other occasion.

When in the month of January last the Socialist deputies signed a petition in favour of the commutation of the capital sentence on Valliant; when they urged upon the President of the Republic that this enfant naturel, abandoned in his infancy, and left to all the hazards of life, should have clemency shown him, or bourgeois society would be well shaken, the reactionaries dared to accuse us of moral complicity with the lamentable Anarchist outrages. They dared to insinuate that it was our own pardon that we solicited. It was certainly not so, but we held profoundly that murder committed by an individual did not give society the right to commit another murder. Society has other means of defence, and the death penalty is nothing but an act of vengeance which degrades humanity itself to the level of the murderer.

The murders by the assassin, the murders by the executioner, form a long and horrible chain. It is for society to break it by withdrawing from the committal of murders which it intercalates between those committed by individuals.

And who knows if this example of humane compassion given from above would not disarm many savage instincts? Such is, in our blind and violent planet, the sad concatenation of fatalities that, perchance, when we asked pardon for Vaillant, it was pardon for another that we asked of Destiny.

In any case the first glidings of the knife have not put a stop to the attempts of the Anarchists; others have followed, and the guillotine has again committed a similar crime.

It is also powerless against the horrible human bestialities which maddened the Abbé Bruneau. Can we imagine that anything will be gained by causing his head to fall? I confess that I cannot, without being sickened, read of the siege of the prison right after night by an impatient crowd. Truly they want the head of the curé! Ah! do you forget that, notwithstanding everything, it is the head of a human being? What he is convicted, and yet you cannot let him have the benefit of a little sleep during his last terrible nights! By your hostile uproar you keep him on the watch, you bring constantly before him the malignant image of the guillotine. For mercy’s sake, since there is an executioner inscribed on the budget of the Republic, leave him to do it: do not meddle with it yourselves.

But no! the devoted flock want to assist at the torment of their pastor; they want to see him at the altar ; they want to see him — rare spectacle! — on the scaffold. Perhaps there enters into this frenzy the remains of clerical superstition, the idea that a priestly murderer is more criminal than a lay murderer. And if he has failed in his vows as a priest, that is no reason why we should fail in our vows to humanity. The first cry of distress that we uttered before even we were put into our cradle was an appeal to pity, and by it a promise of compassion to others. And who has liberated us from that vow?

But what resemblance is there between these instincts of vengeance and murder awakening in the crowd, and the principle of justice?

A little while ago it was the bourgeoisie, their privileges menaced by the Socialist movement, who demanded heads and yet more heads. Soon it will be the spiteful multitudes who prowl around the prisons of the priest clamouring for their prey. What becomes of justice in all this — justice which is incomplete without compassion ? What becomes also of the exercise of the right of pardon? If M. Carnot had pardoned Vailliant, it would have been said that he had capitulated before Anarchism. If M. Casirmir-Périer pardons Bruneau, it will be said that is a concession to the “new spirit.”

What if he commuted the sentence even to be agreeable to the archbishops, if it created at least a precedent of humanity!