France debate over Sauvage murder: Should presidents pardon?

Jacqueline Sauvage in court in December 2015 when she lost her appealImage copyright

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Jacqueline Sauvage lost her appeal against conviction at the end of last year

A presidential pardon granted to Jacqueline Sauvage, the Frenchwoman who murdered her abusive husband, has been welcomed by politicians and commentators of all stripes.

Almost unanimously they agree that the 10-year prison term was unjust, because in both the original trial and then December’s appeal, insufficient account was taken of the defendant’s many years of suffering.

Certainly that was the case made by Jacqueline Sauvage’s lawyers, and then in the online petition, signed by some 400,000 people in the last few weeks.

But there are dissenting voices. These people, mainly in the judiciary, are concerned about the precedent that Francois Hollande has set in exercising his rarely used right to pardon.

Jacqueline Sauvage: Case for the defence

  • Suffered 47 years of violent abuse at hands of husband Norbert and ended up in hospital four times
  • Her son also suffered violent abuse; two of her three daughters were sexually abused
  • 9 Sept 2012: Son hangs himself
  • 10 Sept 2012: Sauvage shoots husband three times in the back
  • October 2014:Sauvage jailed for 10 years for unpremeditated murder
  • December 2015: Appeal court upholds verdict
  • January 2015: President Hollande meets three daughters, decides on Sauvage’s early release

Hollande to free abused murderer

Writer and former judge Philippe Bilger said it was worrying to see a media campaign wielding such influence on the conduct of justice. On two occasions, after due trial, juries consisting of professional magistrates and members of the public had examined the evidence against Sauvage.

Why should their conclusions be gainsaid by clicks on the internet?

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Sauvage’s three daughters (left, second left and far right) met President Hollande two days before he decided on early release

“It is pretty dramatic… when political personalities of all types involve themselves in matters they do not know, and amid demagogy and confusion launch an attack on one of the fundamental institutions of our country,” Mr Bilger wrote in Le Figaro.

“Those who know the facts passed judgment. Those who judge the judges know nothing.”

Nuanced decision

Many in the magistrature feel that the act of presidential pardon has no place in a system where there is supposed to be a separation of powers.

In the case of Jacqueline Sauvage, Mr Hollande was careful to make a nuanced decision. Even after his pardon, she remains guilty of the crime of murder, and it will be up to magistrates to decide exactly when she is freed.

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Mr Hollande’s decision to pardon Sauvage followed an internet petition

Nonetheless, the president intervened personally to have her sentence reduced to a minimum, reacting in so doing to what he perceived to be a groundswell of popular outrage.

For some, this right to pardon, enshrined in Article 17 of the constitution, is a throwback to a monarchical age and should be abolished.

The danger, for some jurists, is that emotion and public relations have become the arbiters in a complex criminal affair.

Lawyer Florence Rault said that a political cause, feminism, had trumped dispassionate dissection of the facts.

She said the case for the prosecution had received virtually no coverage in the media, so the public perception was shaped solely by Jacqueline Sauvage’s defence.

“The aim is simple: to instrumentalise the justice system for purposes which are foreign to the justice system. To wit in this instance: promoting the idea of women as victims, and denying the possibility of violence done by women.”

‘Disastrous defence’

No-one denies that Jacqueline Sauvage suffered at the hands of her husband, though there were certainly questions raised in court about the reality of the relationship.

For Le Monde’s justice commentator Pascale Robert-Diard, the truth of the matter is that her lawyers conducted a disastrous defence. And when it failed, instead of going to the high court of appeal, they turned to the media.

According to Robert-Diard, the lawyers should have admitted guilt and asked for a minimal sentence, pleading Jacqueline Sauvage’s years of misery.

Instead they pushed for acquittal, based on the legally-unacknowledged argument of “deferred self-defence”.

Twice this tactic proved unavailing. And in the end it was left to the head of state “to give to the defendant the kind of effective defence that she never got in court”.

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