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France on the threshold of the 20th century
The military justice system
An enlightened but vigorous repression
The existence of a specific military court in France has its origins in a decree signed in 1347 by Philip VI, but the term conseil de guerre (court martial) appears for the first time in the edict of 13 May 1665.
Under the Third Republic, military justice was still governed by a code promulgated by imperial decree on 9 June 1857. The introduction to Book IV of the Code stipulates: "Sentences are not only to punish the guilty, but also to serve as an example to all and to thereby prevent, inasmuch as possible, violation of the laws." Placed under the authority of the War Ministry, military law was "the natural law" for "any individual belonging to the army" and claimed "to ensure the enlightened but vigorous repression of all acts that are contrary to discipline, while bearing in mind swiftness in investigation and proceedings, and moderation in sentencing." Such moderation was entirely relative, and Jaurès was amazed, on 25 December 1894, at the deportation of a traitor, while "a wretched youth of twenty years [is shot] for being found guilty of having thrown a button from his uniform at the head of the president of the court martial."
Each territorial military district had a permanent court martial, with six judges and a president with the rank of colonel or lieutenant colonel, and each court was assigned a government administrator, a rapporteur, and a clerk. The rapporteur led the investigation, the government administrator concludes with respect to orders for indictment. When sentences were handed down, they were carried out in the 24 hours following the expiration of an initial 24-hour period, during which the condemned could request a review. Procedures were more expeditious in time of war, in function of the measures legislated in the law of 18 May 1875.
Review of military sentences
The sole review board was headquartered in Paris. Its judges did not examine the case, and were not allowed to know its substance. The review board gave its verdict within three days following the presentation of the evidence. After the rapporteur's presentation, the defense attorney could speak, but "[could] not argue on the substance of the affair." In accordance with Articles 80 and 81 of the Code of Military Justice, no appeal for annullment could, in principle, be made against sentencing handed down by court martials or review boards.