The Infamous Guillotine Falls for the Last Time

On this day in 1977, 28-year-old Tunisian Hamida Djandoubi, convicted of murder, became the last person to be executed by guillotine in France.

Hamida Djandoubi was born in Tunisia in 1949, but moved to Marseille on the French Mediterranean coast, where he first worked in a grocery shop. He then started work as a landscaper, but in 1971 an awful work accident resulted in a section of his right leg being amputated. His ability to work was halted–initiating a period of mental collapse and retreat from mainstream society. He drifted into the murky worlds of drugs and prostitution, and at one point was earning money as a pimp.

Elisabeth Bousquet became acquainted with Djandoubi while he was convalescing after his accident, and it is thought they had a relationship. But in 1973 Bousquet reported Djandoubi to the police, accusing him of trying to force her into prostitution. Djandoubi was arrested and subsequently released. He was determined to find the 21-year-old Bousquet and get his revenge.

In July 1974 Djandoubi kidnapped Bousquet, taking her to his apartment where he had also imprisoned two other young girls. Djandoubi, in full view of the terrified captives, carried out a violent attack on Bousquet. The injuries did not prove fatal, so Djandoubi took his badly mutilated victim to a disused farm building outside Marseille where he strangled her.

Bousquet’s body was discovered some days later, and following the testimony of another kidnap victim who had managed to escape, Djandoubi was arrested. The accused pleaded guilty at the trial, but the defense’s plea of diminished responsibility due to the mental trauma of his leg injury found no favour with the jury, who found him guilty of torture, murder and rape. The death sentence was duly passed.

A last-minute appeal for clemency from the French President Giscard D’Estaing was unsuccessful, and in the early hours of September 10th, just seven months after sentence had been passed, Djandoubi was executed. The executioner was Marcel Chevalier, the last active executioner in Western Europe.

The guillotine, named after its inventor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, had been in use in France since the time of the French Revolution. It was developed as an efficient mode of execution that would supposedly cause minimal suffering to the victim. Until the guillotine was developed, it was common for executioners in France to behead their victims with an axe, and it would sometimes take several blows to complete the execution.

The execution of Djandoubi reopened the debate in France as to the effectiveness and moral legitimacy of the death penalty, and intensified the calls for France to abandon the punishment. Four years after Djandoubi’s execution, then President Mitterand finally outlawed the capital punishment, bringing to an end almost 200 years of guillotine use in France.