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US ambassador to France concerned about Europeans attitude to the American death penalty

Le Monde, Paris, 23 February 2001
by Alain Frachon

Former ambassador to France, Felix Rohatyn judges that the moral credit of the United States in Europe is threatened by the practice of the death penalty in America.

In an op-ed piece published by the WASHINGTON POST (INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE of 21 February), under the headline "The United States Should Rethink the Death Penalty," Felix Rohatyn, who has just spend four years in Paris, observes that "most of the French, like most of the Europeans, admire America. They admire what we do, what we stand for and what we have done for them twice during the 20th century," he continues.

The former New Yorker banker judges that it is important for the United States to be able to maintain this positive image with its allies on the Old Continent, so as, he says, to "protect the legitimacy of its moral leadership." But, he feels, "this moral leadership is under challenge because of two issues: the death penalty and violence in our society."
He recalls that France outlawed the death penalty in 1981, even if it was, at the time, supported by a majority of the French. He underlines that the death penalty does not exist anymore in any of the European Union countries. He notes that among the United States' European allies, there is "strong belief" that the death penalty has no place in a civilized society.

He confesses - as he said in LE MONDE of 17th January - that his experience as a diplomat in France made him evolve on this question: "As a New Yorker who had lived in a high-crime environment, I had always been favorable to the death penalty, at least for certain major crimes. It was sustained exposure to this issue in Europe, to reflexion on this problem... which brought me around to the idea of a moratorium (in the United States) while we review the whole issue of capital punishment."

The image of the United States in Europe is fashioned by the violence of American society: "death penalty, guns", all that, writes Felix Rohatyn, damages "the moral leadership of America." He explains: "The United States is seen as executing people who have not had appropriate legal assistance, people who may be innocent, people who are mentally retarded as well as minors. We are viewed as executing disproportionate numbers of minorities and poor people."

There is no question, however, of accepting moral lessons: "I certainly do not believe that just because our allies oppose the death penalty, we should automatically follow. After all, the French legal system has its own shortcomings. France does not provide for habeas corpus, which I find incomprehensible in a democratic society," comments Felix Rohatyn. "French jails are in dismal condition according to a French study published recently."

The reality, observes this Democrat whose family had to flee Vichy France, is that "neither we nor our European allies can be proud of our criminal justice systems" and the ideal would be for this question to become part of the Euro-Atlantic dialogue. In a long interview given LE DEBAT (issue no. 113, January-February 2001), Felix Rohatyn develops this idea: "Is life in prison more humane than the death penalty? Prison, in general, makes criminals more criminal than they were before - yours is no better than ours. For or against the death penalty, the alternative is simplistic. It is necessary to give wider thought to the judicial system and the penal system. Why shouldn't we think about it together?"