Hamida Djandoubi. Off with his head!

At 4:40am on 10 September 1977 Tunisian born Hamida Djandoubi was executed by guillotine at Baumettes Prison, Marseille, France. He was to be the last person to suffer the infamous fate as the french abolished capital punishment in 1981.


Hamida Djandoubi detained by French police.

Hamida Djandoubi moved to the French mediterranean city of Marseille in 1968 and worked there for a while as a grocer.
In 1968 French filmmaker Claude Lelouche, directed his seminal film, La Vie, l’Amour, la Mort (Life, love, death) which was released the following year. The film is prophetic and–coincidentally or not–mirrored the events surrounding the final decade of Djandoubi’s life. I would be surprised if Djandoubi hadn’t seen this film and indeed modelled his ‘pimp killer’ character on that of the film’s protagonist, he therefore knew his awaiting fate.

Here is the powerful final scene from Lelouche’s film, showing the lead up to the execution.

English language poster for Claude Lelouche's film Love, life, death.

English language poster for Claude Lelouche’s film Love, life, death.

In 1974 Hamida Djandoubi murdered a 21 year old French woman named, Élisabeth Bousquet. The previous year Bousquet had filed a report to police accusing Djandoubi of trying to force her into prostitution. Following his arrest and release Djandoubi kidnapped Bousquet and took her to his home where she was violently beaten in-front of two other women who had apparently been successfully employed as prostitutes by Djandoubi. Bousquet was then forcibly taken to the outskirts of Marseille where she was again brutally beaten and eventually strangled to death. Djandoubi returned to his home and threatened the two women not to speak of what they had witnessed.

Djandoubi was eventually apprehended by police following another kidnap attempt of a young woman who managed to escape and report the crime.

Guillotiné Headline

GUILLOTINÉ. Headline in French newspaper following the execution.

The title of the YouTube video below suggests that it shows the final guillotine execution, but it is quite possible that it is in-fact the execution of Eugen Weidmann, the last person to be publicly executed in France. Still it is interesting that this video is available online.

So whether the gif I posted in an earlier post (and below) shows the actual execution of Djandoubi or not (it looks identical to the video) I still find it fascinating that it just exists detached, online, that someone has created this, and that it loops over, and over in our collective memory.

Hamida Djandoubi gif

The replay of these events, whether in actual documentation or in fiction, I feel is something that poses some very interesting questions, especially in light of the current situation in Iraq and Syria with Islamic state and their practice of decapitation documented and distributed over the web. A simple Google Image search will reveal images and videos of their victims.

Of course decapitation has a long history as a form of punishment. That ended in France 38 years ago today but it still goes on–Whether sanctioned by the state, as in some countries of the Middle East or illegally as in the example of IS–the removal of the head is a powerful metaphor that cuts right to the core of our consciousness, and as such the image of the act is integral to reinforcing this. From the images of Mythology: Perseus holding aloft the severed head of Medusa, Salome with the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and Judith with the head of Holophernes, decapitation is a common allegorical theme in the visual arts.

The power of the image, the re-play; these provide evidence, they act as a warning, and they act as a symbol, a sign, and a metaphor. It is also interesting then to note that Djandoubi was made to re-enact his crime by police. A police secretary, Nadine Pache played the role of Élisabeth Bousquet while the real-life murderer, manacled to a police officer was forced to reconstruct the event [link] That somehow we need an image, no matter whether it is constructed after the event or not, we need something concrete to make ‘real’ the abstract image in our mind, to act as a form of emotional closure. I think that Gerhard Richter by painting his 18 Oktober 1977 cycle was questioning precisely this. Another German artist Hans-Peter Feldman shows us the power of the image too in his work, but particularly powerfully in Das Museum im Kopf (The Museum in the Head, 1989). I’ll discuss this further in another post.

Although execution by guillotine was rare in France there was another in 1977: On 23 June 1977 Jérôme Henri Carrein was executed for the brutal rape and murder by strangulation of an 8 year old girl.

Jérôme Henri Carrein was executed by guillotine at Baumettes Prison on 23 June 1977.

Jérôme Henri Carrein was executed by guillotine at Baumettes Prison on 23 June 1977.

 La Vie, l’Amour, la Mort

Here’s the full version of Claude Lelouche’s film. in French (no English subtitles).

Further reading:



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