La grâce présidentielle
(Sorry to disappoint those for whom the title conjured up visions of Hollande in a tutu!)
I couldn’t dream of a better time to launch my blog. On Sunday 31st of January, François Hollande “pardoned” (that’s how it was wrongly translated in UK press) a 68 year old woman sentenced to 10 years in jail for killing her violent husband. As a presidential candidate for the 2012 presidential elections, Hollande had said he would not use his presidential power to pardon, explaining that it was a “pouvoir régalien” (royal prerogative) and that it belonged to a different era.
Let’s have a look at the “Grâce présidentielle”. The different era mentioned by Hollande is the “Ancien Régime”, a term coined during the French Revolution and designating roughly the two preceding centuries of “Monarchie Absolue” in France. Kings, thought to be deriving their power directly from God, had the power to override decisions of justice. Bearing that in mind makes it easier to understand why Hollande said he needed “le temps de la réflexion” before deciding whether or he would use his “pouvoir de grâce”.
For once, the French president didn’t spend much time dilly-dallying. On Saturday he had a meeting with Mme Sauvage’s daughters and lawyers and on Sunday, he did what 400.000 petitioners were demanding him to do. He granted Mme Sauvage a reduction of her prison sentence. Mme Jacqueline Sauvage (unfortunate surname) should be freed in April, once her request for “libération conditionnelle” has been processed, in other words, once a tribunal declares her not to be a danger to the community and “la paperasserie” (paperwork) has been completed. Indeed, we’re not talking here about the immediate release of a woman Hollande thought had been unjustly jailed. Hollande is not going against the verdict taken by two different juries (the appeal was lost in December) that Mrs Sauvage could not benefit from the “légitime défense” (she shot her husband three times in the back as he was seated). Interfering with the judicial system is a big no-no more or less respected, at least apparently, by French presidents.
Mme Sauvage has not been cleared of the charges against her. She hasn’t been pardoned. No amnesty (from Greek “amnestia”, forgotten) for her and her “casier judiciaire” (criminal record) is no longer “vierge”. For many advocates for the rights of women, that means there is another battle to lead, the acceptance in law of “la légitime défense différée”, which would especially apply to women subjected to domestic violence. As a reminder, two women are killed every week by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales (pop 56 million), and one every three days in France (pop 66million). In France, “la légitime défense” stipulates that it can be used at the time of an aggression and must be proportionate to the threat. In January, a court acquitted a police officer charged with killing an armed robber. The fact that the robber was shot in the back as he was fleeing didn’t go against the accused’s self-defence plea. Also, I imagine the police officer was merely suspended, whereas Mme Sauvage was under arrest (“en garde à vue”) and then incarcerated awaiting trial for the murder of a violent husband and father who sexually abused their daughters.
I started this entry saying that Hollande’s use of his “pouvoir de grâce” on humane grounds was a good time to launch my blog. Being a French national settled in Sussex gives me a useful distance to observe both nations, France and England. I found it interesting that French presidents retained a royal prerogative. Here, The Queen also has the prerogative to grant Her Royal Pardon in the United Kingdom. A few years ago, the Justice Secretary asked the Queen to grant a posthumous pardon to Alan Thuring and Her Majesty was graciously pleased to extend her grace and mercy to the brilliant code broker. In 2000, IRA Paul Magee was also granted mercy and could return to live in Northern Ireland without fear of prosecution. Now would she have been asked to extend her grace and mercy to a Mrs Savage? I doubt it. I believe the last resort for her lawyers would have been the recently created Supreme Court but I don’t know if the final court of appeal can reduce a sentence on humane grounds. Do you?
You may be interested to know that capital punishment was abolished by François Mitterrand in 1981. In September 1977, Hamida Djandoubi was the last person to be guillotined in France, after his lawyers’ request for the presidential pardon was rejected by Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who will later use his prerogative to commute four death sentences into life imprisonment.
Stop press: A woman has just been given a five year suspended sentence for the murder of her violent husband. Her lawyer did not plead self-defence but merely asked the court to give a just sentence.