“Every time I hear France described as the birthplace of the Rights of Man, I get a little tic,” Robert Badinter, Francois Mitterand’s justice minister from 1981 to 1986, confided to a crowd, including 450 high school students, who had gathered Friday on a typically balmy late fall afternoon in southwest France on the esplanade of Perigueux’s Odyssey Theater to rename it the Robert Badinter Esplanade. The country is more accurately described as the birthplace of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, he said — not the same thing. But if it’s true that the French sometimes exaggerate their moral primacy, the decision by this city of less than 30,000 to become the first to name a public space after the man almost singularly responsible for the abolition of the death penalty in France 28 years ago this month is clear proof that when it comes to naming public spaces, the French could give a lesson to Americans. Just compare the case of Robert Badinter and the city of Perigueux with the case of David Koch and Lincoln Center.
Koch essentially bought the right to have the New York State Theater re-named after him last fall, by giving $100 million to Lincoln Center for its renovation. The checkered history of his company, Koch Industries, was not an issue. (Among other things, in January 2000 Koch Industries agreed to pay a $30 million civil penalty, according to the Justice Department “the largest civil penalty ever imposed against a single company for violations of an environmental law,” to, the department said, “resolve claims under the Clean Water Act related to more than 300 illegal oil spills from Koch’s pipelines and oil facilities resulting in the release of some three million gallons of oil and related products into ponds, rivers, lakes, and shorelines in six States.”)
In the case of Robert Badinter, by contrast, it was not the power of his wallet but the power of his moral example that inspired Mayor Michel Morland and the city council to give his name to the esplanade of the Odyssey Theater — appropriately located, as Morland pointed out Friday, right off the rue President Wilson, and where international dance artists Josef Nadj and Blanca Li will perform this season. After defending death penalty cases as a lawyer in the 1970s, Badinter became Mitterand’s justice minister with his election in the spring of 1981 and, just months later, convinced the assembly and senate to make France the 35th country in the world (and the last in Europe) to abolish the death penalty. And he’s not resting on his laurels. His battle today, to which he devoted much of his speech Friday, is to reform France’s notorious prison system. (And regarding the death penalty, he’s irremediably optimistic; “I can say with absolute confidence that very soon the U.S. will join the camp of abolition,” he prognosticated Friday.)
If those attending the David Koch Theater — including young people — will think,”This is what money buys,” those traversing the Robert Badinter Esplanade will, as Badinter put it, “think that there are durable moral victories, the abolition of the death penalty being one. There are still others to win. To the young generation to carry them.”