Robert Badinter, a French lawyer and former justice minister who led the fight to abolish the death penalty in France and became one of the country’s most respected intellectual figures, died early Friday. He was 95.
His death was confirmed by Aude Napoli, his spokeswoman.
“Robert Badinter never ceased to advocate the Enlightenment,” President Emmanuel Macron wrote on social media, hailing him as a “figure of the century” who incarnated the “French spirit.”
Mr. Badinter spent decades as an esteemed defense lawyer but was best known for enacting the 1981 law that abolished capital punishment in France, one of his very first acts as justice minister in the Socialist government of President François Mitterrand.
“Tomorrow, thanks to you, France’s justice will no longer be a justice that kills,” Mr. Badinter told lawmakers in 1981, in a fiery, hourslong speech defending the law.
He achieved this in the face of wide public support for the death penalty at the time. The fight against capital punishment stood at the core of his lifelong defense of human rights against oppression and cruelty.
In “The Execution,” a 1973 book, he vividly recalled “the sharp snap” of the guillotine blade as he witnessed the execution of one of his clients, a traumatizing experience that he said led him to campaign against the death penalty. Decades later, in a 2010 interview with The New York Times, he still referred to the guillotine as “my old enemy.”
Mr. Badinter was justice minister from 1981 to 1986, and then became the president of France’s Constitutional Council, a position he held for nine years. The council is the institution that reviews laws to ensure that they conform with the Constitution. He also served in the Senate as a Socialist lawmaker from 1995 to 2011, and progressively came to resemble the conscience of the republic, a fervent defender of the rule of law.
“Deeply committed to justice, an advocate of abolition, a man of law and passion, he leaves a void that matches his legacy: immeasurable,” Éric Dupond-Moretti, France’s justice minister — and a longtime defense lawyer himself — said on social media.
Born in Paris to the son of Jewish immigrants from Bessarabia, a region in Eastern Europe that now straddles Moldova and Ukraine, Mr. Badinter was raised to respect the liberal values and tolerance of the French republic.
But in 1943, when he was 15, his father, Simon, was deported from Lyon and never returned from the Nazi death camps. Several other members of his family, including one of his grandmothers, were also killed by the Nazis.
The lesson for Mr. Badinter was not that the promises of the republic were empty but that constant vigilance was needed to honor and defend them. The wartime Vichy government in France that collaborated with the Nazis in the deportation of Jews constituted the ultimate betrayal of the republic.
Defining himself as “republican, secular and Jewish,” he carried within him for the rest of his long life the mark of his family’s loss in a moment of French betrayal.
“I am French, a French Jew — the two cannot be disassociated,” he said in 2018. “These are not just words, this is the lived reality.”
Mr. Badinter was particularly close to Mr. Mitterrand, and worked with him on the refashioning of the Socialist Party as a center-left movement that abandoned the wholesale nationalization of industries.
It was to Mr. Badinter that Mr. Mitterrand turned in 1984 to countersign, in strict secrecy, the document in which the president recognized Mazarine Pingeot, his daughter from an adulterous relationship.