Criminal law and offenses. – Since August 26, 1789, in the Declaration of the rights of man and citizen, the revolution manifested its will to do away with the criminal law of the old regime; it proclaimed principles which, directly inspired by the work of C. Beccaria, gave new foundations to the repression of crimes: legality and personality of penalties, suppression of arbitrary repressions, limitation of criminal law to facts contrary to the social order. On the basis of these ideas, the codes of 1791 and of the year IV (1795-96) were drawn up: pushing the principle of legality to the extreme, these codes established a fixed and definitive penalty for each crime.
But these codes soon appeared insufficient; and they were soon replaced by that of 1810 which still constitutes the penal law of France today. It is inspired by the doctrines of the utilitarian school; seeks to prevent the crime by intimidating those who might be tempted to commit it; the notion of the guilty amendment is completely ignored there. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a whole series of laws had to introduce penalty mitigations into French criminal law, mostly inspired by the concept of the individualization of the penalty.
According to Philosophynearby, the offenses are divided, according to the relative penalties, into the three categories of crimes involving a criminal penalty, offenses (correctional penalties) and fines (simple police penalties). In principle, crime and delinquency presuppose a criminal intention in the offender, that is, the awareness of violating the law, while the intentional element may also be lacking in the offenses.
The Criminal Code recognizes the distinction of crimes into political crimes and crimes of common law. The former are punished with special penalties; and these were particularly subject to mitigation: abolition of the death penalty and prison for debts (read November 4, 1848 and December 30, 1928).
The attempt is punished for all crimes and for those crimes with respect to which the legislator has formally specified it; on the other hand, he is never punished for fines. The attempt is punished as the crime consummated: this is a survival of the severity of the Code pénal, mitigated in practice by the game of extenuating circumstances.
The criminal and the penalty. – The evolution of French criminal law has been aimed at individualizing the sentence, especially in relation to repeat offenders and those who commit crimes for the first time.
The recidivism, considered as an aggravating circumstance of the sentence, was already provided for by the code; but the law of 26 May 1891, known as the Bérenger law, considerably extended it, especially in the field of crimes. After the law of 27 May 1885, some repeat offenders, considered as habitual offenders, incur a special penalty: relegation, a colonial penalty intended to permanently eliminate unassimilable offenders. On the other hand, the position of those who commit crimes for the first time has been improved by the conditional sentence, a probationary period during which the offender is exempted from the execution of the sentence.
Criminal penalties are death, forced labor for life or time (penalty served in Guiana) and imprisonment. Imprisonment and a fine constitute correctional and simple police penalties. The cellular regime has been practiced since 1875 and conditional release has operated since 1885 for imprisonment and imprisonment.
Criminal procedure. – Regulated by the Code d’instruction criminelle of 1808, the criminal procedure has been modified by various laws, especially by the law of 8 December 1897, aimed at granting the accused the maximum guarantees.
For offenses and crimes, the courts of civil jurisdiction are also competent in criminal matters. There is a particular jurisdiction for crimes, namely the assize court, which includes two elements: the jury, which pronounces on the facts, and the court, made up of magistrates, which applies the penalty. The criminal section (chambre criminelle) of the court of cassation can overrule decisions and judgments contrary to the law.
The public action is initiated by the Public Prosecutor who turns to the investigating judge; he is invested with extended powers, but his education is secret. On the other hand, at the hearing, the instruction is oral, public and contradictory.