BETWEEN THE GUILLOTINE AND LIBERTY: Two Centuries of the Crime Problem in France by Gordon Wright

BETWEEN THE GUILLOTINE AND LIBERTY: Two Centuries of the Crime Problem in France

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The eminent Stanford historian has written a straightforward, scholarly history of the French penal system from the Enlightenment to the present--in part, to challenge Foucault and other Marxist theorists. Weaving a subtle pattern of intellectual pursuits, political events, and the contingencies of the penal system, Wright does bring theory into question--without, however, actually confronting its implications. Thus he credits the Enlightenment with encouraging reforms both in the Old Regime and following the Revolution, when imprisonment replaced such varied punishments as branding, whipping, and banishment. While Foucault links the rise of the prison to bourgeois creation of the ""disciplinary society,"" Wright proffers the ""simpler idea that the reformer saw no workable alternative."" The test of the narrative is in the same Reasonable tenor. The new Revolutionary Code sought to replace vengeance with rehabilitation, but the Directory could not create law-and-order out of chaos. Napoleon did bring that order; and his penal code called for both ""a nationwide network of prisons suited to graduated degrees of punishment, and one or more penal colonies overseas."" Not until another period of reaction and reform, however, did Devil's Island become a common dumping ground (along with the less-utilized colony at New Caledonia). Then, the colonies were hard to close down; and only after Leon Blum's Popular Front came into power were the failed settlements abandoned and the prisoners repatriated. The revealing last chapter deals with the post-WW II period. Former Resistance leaders, remembering their own imprisonment and opposing authoritarianism, helped fire a new desire for social revolution--which took the form of a movement to vary prison treatment according to the criminal's personality profile, rather than the crime. Such liberal ideas, combined with rising crime rates, led to renewed but short-lived opposition: in 1968, leftists inspired by Sartre's glorification of Genet, agitated for prison reform--and may have thus triggered a series of violent prison disorders. Once again, in the later '70s, public opinion demanded a harder line. In the most recent turnaround, Mitterand's socialists have abolished the death penalty and freed lesser offenders, reducing the prison population by more than a third within a mere three months. Will another wave of reaction follow? Wright, declining to speculate, observes only that ""chronic social problems such as crime have never allowed for easy answers."" All told, the evidence on Intellectual philosophies and political turning points weighs against high-flying materialist explanations.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press