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Présentation du dossier

A History of Political Detentions in France

Jean-Claude Vimont
Cet article est une traduction de :
Histoire de la détention politique en France

Notes de la rédaction

Translated by Patricia Bass

Notes de l’auteur

Several articles were published in journals that either no longer exist or that have a limited distribution. We found it of utmost importance to republish them. I wish to thank Raphaëlle Branche who put us in touch with researchers from the metropolitan network who work on the war in Algeria.

Texte intégral

1Creating a dossier about political detentions in France implies addressing a particularly difficult subject in the history of penal justice. It implies redefining numerous criteria, since the line that distinguishes common law from political law oscillates as political regimes change. When a penitentiary regime labels an infraction, a judicial body or a prisoner as “political”, it provokes a certain attention to the motives behind the transgression of the law. This attention to the motives of the crime is not constant. A certain government in a certain time period can have such a suspicion of the (potentially political) motives of a crime, which can then be questioned by that government’s successors. The “cause” behind political transgressions, the engagement in defending certain ideas, can gain the support and even a certain unanimity in public opinion, but it can also be the subject of very limited support by a fraction of society. This motive can provoke debates, divergent opinions, combats and battles between prisoners, lawyers, and politicians, as well as conflicts between schools of legal theory. In France, this phenomena contains many paradoxes. The governments that have come to power since the 18th century have never been able to offer a stable definition of political crime, preferring to label certain infractions as “crimes de lèse majesté”, crimes against the State, crimes against national security and crimes of terrorism. Moreover, the French state has been content to refer to public opinion to qualify certain crimes and lesser infractions, labeling them as “reputed as political” or “called political” (“dits politiques”). Legal experts, members of parliament, ministers and highly-ranked civil servants in the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice have frequently been required to refer to public opinion to try to define the boundaries of this unique type of criminality. Thus, “political” crimes have traditionally been defined by the tension between levels of public tolerance, which have evolved over time, and the acquiescence, or refusal, of the specific regime in power. The fate of the rural, catholic inhabitants of the Vendée who followed the Duchess of Berry in her crazed adventures in the beginning of the July Monarchy illustrate this ambiguity. Those who were arrested during the first years of Louis-Philippe’s reign were placed in the political section, created by Adolphe Thiers, of the Fontevrault prison. In later years, the perpetrators of similar acts were placed with common law prisoners. Those who attempted to take, or who took, the lives of kings (accused of regicide) were not all treated in the same way by the penitentiary system either. The fact that they were placed in a particular part of the prison, with a special detention protocol, was thus the defining factor of a certain status (political prisoner) that the law itself did not provide or explicitly define. When individuals were accused of acts threatening national security, the courts made choices in a similar fashion.

2The status of “political crimes” depended, therefore, on a complex relationship between the government, the prison, and public opinion. The rules fluctuated depending upon the power structures in place, but always took into account the memory of repressive practices of the past, whether they were liberal or conservative. We cannot ignore the liberal French tradition of punishing political offenders, a tradition which avoided shortening sentences and according significant concrete privileges to elite figures of the 18th century. This tradition was reinforced by famous events in the corridors of the Sainte-Pélagie Prison, in the lower section of the Santé Prison, at the Fresnes hospital, and in certain divisions of other prisons until the end of the 19th century. If the material aspects of political detention tended to diminish with the general improvement of (common-law) prison conditions, the symbolic aspects of detention maintained all of their power in regards to certain prisoners and their supporters.

Leaflet from the Red Cross distributed in Paris in February 1971 (front)

Leaflet from the Red Cross distributed in Paris in February 1971 (front)

Leaflet from the Red Cross distributed in Paris in February 1971 (back)

Leaflet from the Red Cross distributed in Paris in February 1971 (back)

3The term “political detention” (detention politique) was deemed preferable to “political prison” (prison politique) because it provided information on the type of the sentence applied to prisoners whatever the space it was that they were imprisoned in (federal prisons, fortresses, sections of remand centers or central prisons), or that they were deported to (this could be “simple” deportation, or deportation to fortified enclosures overseas), or interned at (the administrative or judicial camps of the 20th century). Moreover, “detention” is the sentence for political criminals that was written into the books of the Penal Code in 1832 and it determined the organization of certain types of imprisonment for two centuries, notably in terms of how administrators organized central prisons and remand centers, in Paris like in outlying areas.

4To best understand political detentions and the “hosts” of these prisoners, it seems important to intersect the different approaches that contribute to them being labeled as such. For example, there are specific jurisdictions before which certain individuals are deferred when their infractions involve political motives. An exhaustive list would be tiresome (Revolutionary court, the provost courts or cours prévôtales, High courts of justice, the court of National Security, the special Assizes Court, which are only a few of many civil, military or mixed jurisdictions). Appearing before the judges in these courts did not necessarily guarantee that a particular type of detention would be granted (those condemned for acts of collaboration were not officially sentenced to political detention, but were counted as such, each year, by the Penal Administration). However, there were certain cases, like those in the Court of National Security starting in 1975, where those suspected and condemned for attacks were automatically sentenced with political detention.

5Accusations, the second criterion, aimed to protect national interests in a different way. Certain accusations protected the State, the format of the government, the integrity of the national territory, or the society, whereas others punished the crimes of the press. Often, the criteria used to attribute a political sentence to a crime depended on the incrimination. Over and over, the legislators, just as in autumn of 1830, wrote up the list of accusations in order to define the limits of the application of “political” punishment.

6The study of punishments also deserves attention, because some of them, qualified as “political”, vary greatly from those reserved for perpetrators of common law infractions. The punishment of detention, for example, did not require an obligation of hard labor (applied from 1791 to 1987), and those sentenced to deportation and detention carried out their sentences apart from “ordinary” (common law) inmates.

7Because the Codes (Penal and otherwise) were not precise, different governments had to publish decrees and circulars to regulate procedures of political detention. The Napoleonic decree of 1810 regarding federal prisons is a good example of this. It was followed by significant initiatives taken by the Minister Thiers (during the first few years of the July Monarchy), the Minister Constans in 1890, the Minister Michelet in 1959 and the Minister Pleven in 1971, to cite only a few of the essential milestone regulations. The internal regulations used by prisons in the Parisian region (notably the Sainte-Pélagie prison, followed by the Santé Prison and the Fresnes Prison) long served as models for the prisons outside the capital when a political prisoner was sentenced to time there.

8Pardons and amnesty laws also differed in their application to common law inmates and political prisoners. Such laws and events could shorten detention sentences, or free individuals who managed to fight back or continue their struggle. They could also undermine detentions or divide political prisoners if the pressure was very strong during certain “blackmailings” for pardons. Activist campaigns called for the liberation of political prisoners, the right to receive a pardon, and helped attenuate the isolation of prisoners by providing them with moral and material support. It is also important to remember the laws regarding damages and reparations for the victims of preceding governments that multiple regimes voted for. Benefitting from such a reparations law, like those passed in the first few years of the July Monarchy, implied recognition and a certain form of honor. For example, the son of Gracchus Babeur who was detained at Mont-Saint-Michel in the beginning of the Bourbon Restoration, and then his widow, benefited from reparations during several years of the July Monarchy.

9Any history of political detention is also a history of the struggles of prisoners: individual and collective hunger strikes, petitions, prison breaks, and mutinies, for example. The purpose of these actions is threefold. First, prisoners aim to be recognized as political prisoners and thus to avoid the criminalizing processes initiated by governments during authoritarian phases or crises, when society’s state of fear inspires political fear (or vice versa). They also struggle in order to gain the benefits traditionally granted to political prisoners by the regime in power or past regimes. Third, and finally, they fight to obtain pardons, amnesty or freedom. These struggles that take place inside the prison walls often find support and connections on the outside, as was the case for Algerian prisoners of the FLN who managed to bring their struggle all the way to the UN. This can force the government to react, most often, by granting liberal concessions, lightening the prison sentence, or, of course, by granting a symbolic recognition of the prisoners’ demands.

10Any history of political detention is also a history of captive words. Political prisoners have written a lot, both during and after their detentions. Almost all of them, whether they were liberal journalists, republicans, socialists, communists, leaders of factions or rising members of political parties, left souvenirs. Being well-educated, they could. A notable difference with the common-law population of central prisons and jails is the “voiceless” who remain silent after their political detentions. The partisans of political movements and activists arrested during insurrections who were modest Parisian artisans or illiterate peasants from the West of France remained silent after their detentions, broken by years behind bars or in exile overseas. The books of Linguet and Latude contributed to the myth surrounding the Bastille. The paintings of fortresses from the era of Robespierre published in 1794 and 1795 or the pamphlets against “resistantism” biased the understanding of the Committee of Public Safety’s repressions and those of the Epuration. The martyr Magalon, of Poissy, under the Bourbon Restoration and the tears of Silvio Pellico not much later were powerful weapons of the liberal battle against the repressive practices of the ultra-royalist or absolutist regimes. Political texts written in prison are texts of struggle, with their own logic that needs to be deciphered. Yet they are also the birth-site of negative and positive myths. Martyrologies were constructed and biographies lauded the courage of individuals to better denounce the regimes that had repressed them. These representations should not be neglected because thousands of people made these accounts best-sellers. My Prisons by Silvio Pellico is a perfect example.

The creation of the GIP

The creation of the GIP

La Cause du Peuple, February 17th 1971

11In the beginning of the 1970s, “Maoist” activists from the Gauche Prolétarienne (a French Maoist political party) were arrested and sentenced for disseminating the newspaper La cause du people. A solidarity movement was organized to obtain their freedom and to allow them to qualify for a special system, written into the Code of penal procedures, for political prisoners. Intellectuals supported this movement. Michel Foucault was one of the founders of the GIP (Information Group on Prisons) which quickly denounced the aberrations of the prison system, including but not limited to the supporting the Maoist solidarity movement. In 1975, he published Discipline and Punish, the same year that the seminal article on penal history, “Délinquance et système pénitentiaire” was published by Michelle Perrot. This was one of Perrot’s landmark articles and was published in Les Annales, inspiring numerous doctoral dissertations.

Photograph of the platform of a meeting held at the Mutualité on May 26th 1971

Photograph of the platform of a meeting held at the Mutualité on May 26th 1971

Alain Geismar, the spokesman of the Gauche Prolétarienne, called for a protest in the streets against the imprisonment of the directors of the newspaper La Cause du people. His speech led him to be accused and sentenced to time in prison, because violent clashes with the police occurred on May 27th. Extract from La Cause du Peuple, the issue from July 1971, which was not allowed to be distributed.

12At the end of the 1970s, Michelle Perrot suggested that I start a dissertation on political detention in order to reinsert this issue into the heart of the global history of prisons that she encouraged. This historical project had not yet reached maturity and would eventually include the valuable research done by Jacques-Guy Petit, Christian Carlier, Jean-Jacques Yvorel, Martine Kaluszynski and others. Since then, publications on the theme of political detention have multiplied. The precious book by Jean-Claude Farcy, L’Histoire de la justice française de la Révolution à nos jours, bears witness to this.

13This dossier offers new reflections, difficult to find monographs, and new texts on political detentions. It only asks to be supplemented by further contributions.

From the political to the common law

From the political to the common law

Extract from L'Idiot International, February 24th 1971

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Table des illustrations

Titre Leaflet from the Red Cross distributed in Paris in February 1971 (front)
URL http://criminocorpus.revues.org/docannexe/image/2977/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
Titre Leaflet from the Red Cross distributed in Paris in February 1971 (back)
URL http://criminocorpus.revues.org/docannexe/image/2977/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 68k
Titre The creation of the GIP
Légende La Cause du Peuple, February 17th 1971
URL http://criminocorpus.revues.org/docannexe/image/2977/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Photograph of the platform of a meeting held at the Mutualité on May 26th 1971
Légende Alain Geismar, the spokesman of the Gauche Prolétarienne, called for a protest in the streets against the imprisonment of the directors of the newspaper La Cause du people. His speech led him to be accused and sentenced to time in prison, because violent clashes with the police occurred on May 27th. Extract from La Cause du Peuple, the issue from July 1971, which was not allowed to be distributed.
URL http://criminocorpus.revues.org/docannexe/image/2977/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre From the political to the common law
Légende Extract from L'Idiot International, February 24th 1971
URL http://criminocorpus.revues.org/docannexe/image/2977/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k
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Référence électronique

Jean-Claude Vimont, « A History of Political Detentions in France », Criminocorpus [En ligne], Justice et détention politique, Présentation du dossier, mis en ligne le 18 novembre 2013, consulté le 26 juin 2017. URL : http://criminocorpus.revues.org/2977

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Auteur

Jean-Claude Vimont

Maître de conférences d’histoire contemporaine à l’université de Rouen (GRHis). Jean-Claude Vimont est membre du comité de rédaction de Criminocorpus.

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