The Independent Archive: `Legitimate self-defence' means death to burglars

31 August 1988 Patrick Marnham reports on the successes, and failures, of recent amateur security measures in France
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The Independent Culture
THERE USED to be a sign outside a factory premises in Cardiff which read "Death lurks within these walls for the unwary". It was intended to discourage children from playing with high-voltage electricity cables. Erected in France, it might have carried a very different meaning.

The man who does a mischief to his neighbour's dog, even if it does bark all night, can be sent to prison. But the man who kills in defence of his laying hens can sometimes get away with it. Far from being whittled down with the passage of time his defence has been revived in recent years, and there is a "Legitimate Self-Defence Association" which advises its members how to set their traps legally.

It all began with the case of Lionel Legras, a garage owner who bought a little cottage near Troyes only to see it burgled again and again. After the 12th burglary, Mr Legras decided to spring a surprise on his next visitors. He took an old transistor radio and with some explosive powder and an electric battery transformed it into a bomb and left it on the kitchen table. Then he nailed up a sign outside his isolated cottage: "Keep Out. Danger of Death". Then he went back to his garage. That night two men ignored his notice, broke down the front door of the cottage and went in. One of them picked up the radio and was killed by the explosion.

Charged with manslaughter, Mr Legras was tried by three magistrates who found him guilty, gave him an eight-month suspended sentence and fined him 600 francs (pounds 60). His lawyer was not satisfied with this and demanded that his client be re-tried by a jury. Mr Legras denied that he had ever intended to kill with his lethal little radio. "I just wanted to mark them so that the gendarmes would recognise them," he said. The jury found him "not guilty".

This year the scope of the defence was extended further by a 79-year- old retired smallholder, Pierre Arnaud, who had rigged up a gun trap outside his hen house. He then erected a sign reading "Keep Out - Danger - Man Trap". He did this after his vegetable garden and dovecot, in which he raised pigeons, pheasants and chickens, had been wrecked five times. Each time Mr Arnaud rebuilt it. After he installed the illegal trap matters improved. Now and again he would hear the gun go off in the night, and in the morning there would be nothing there, and his fowls would be safe. But one night the gun went off and in the morning Mr Arnaud found a man lying dead outside the dovecot. He had bled to death from stomach wounds.

In court Mr Arnaud was presented, honestly enough, as a simple man who had worked hard all his life. Even his trap was simple. It was operated by a string. Anyone who tripped over the string would set off the shotgun, which was sighted to hit a grown man below the knee. The friends of the dead man who were with him that night said they had been hunting hedgehogs. They told the court they could cook a hedgehog 36 different ways. But the jury concluded that they had been mounting yet another raid on Mr Arnaud's dovecot. Mr Arnaud also won sympathy because he had received death threats and been forced to sell up and move to the 10th floor of a tower block in Bordeaux. He described this, of course, as "a chicken coop". He was acquitted.

But it is still possible to go too far. A postman in Versailles habitually parked his car in an underground car park. Earlier this year thieves took his cassettes and radio. Later they returned and tried to take the car. This was too much for the postman. He bought a shotgun and took to sleeping with it on the back seat. In the middle of the night another car parked beside his. A man and a woman got out. The woman tried his car door handle. The postman leapt up and made the couple put their hands on their heads. Shortly afterwards the gun went off, possibly by mistake, killing the man. The postman went home, and reported for work next morning in the normal way. The police found a full-length sabre and a tear-gas bomb in the couple's car, but the postman was still not allowed to plead self-defence.

From `Out of France' on the Foreign News pages of `The Independent', Wednesday 31 August 1988