Public opinion and the french capital punishment debate of 1908

James M. Donovan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Academics have traditionally associated capital punishment most closely with authoritarian regimes. They have assumed an incompatibility between the death penalty and the presumably humane values of modern liberal democracy. However, recent scholarship on the United States by David Garland has suggested that a considerable degree of direct democratic control over a justice system actually tends to favor the retention and application of the death penalty. The reason why the United States has retained capital punishment after it has been abolished in other Western nations is not because public opinion is more supportive of the death penalty in America than in Europe or in Canada. Rather, it is because popular control over the justice system is greater in the United States than in other countries and this strengthens the influence of America's retentionist majority. However, the experience of the United States in this regard has not been unique. The same link between democratic control and retention of the death penalty can be seen in the history of the effort to abolish capital punishment in France. In 1908, a bill in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the French Parliament) to abolish capital punishment was defeated, in large part because of strong opposition from the public. In 1981, majority public opinion in France still favored retention of the death penalty, but in that year, the nation's Parliament defied popular sentiment and outlawed the ultimate punishment. Historians have so far provided little insight into why abolition succeeded in 1981 when it failed in 1908. The explanation for the different outcome appears to have been the greater degree of influence public opinion exerted over the nation's justice system at the turn of the twentieth century than at its end.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)575-609
Number of pages35
JournalLaw and History Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Law


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