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

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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album