Giulia de Nardin

International Relations and Global Governance Analyst

The extradition of Italian ex-terrorists in France puts an end to the Mitterrand Doctrine

Thanks to the operation ‘Red Shadows’ (from Italian: ‘Ombre Rosse’), France released on probation all former Red Brigades terrorists apprehended in its territory and wanted by the Italian justice after several years of contentious and protracted negotiations. 

The law will now require them to comply with several obligations, such as signing and reporting to the police twice a week in Italy, as long as they wait for their trial. The French attempt to tackle this judicial and political issue counters the famous and much-debated Mitterrand Doctrine by reopening the dossier after decades of controversies. The reasons why the Macron government has taken up the case are far from being accidental. Whether this decision is because France has been deeply transformed by terrorist attacks, because of the understanding between the current Italian and French political leadership, or simply to allow President Macron to win the upcoming elections, it takes place in a particular geopolitical climate worth analysing.

The first person to announce the news to the press was Jean-Louis Chalanset, the French lawyer of the ex-militant of the Red Brigades, Enzo Calvitti. Calvitti is now aged 66 and will have to serve a sentence of about 19 years’ detention, in addition to probation for four years. Raffaele Ventura, ex-terrorist belonging to the ‘Autonomia Operaia’ group, was sentenced to approximately 24 years for the murder of Deputy Brigadier Antonio Custra on 14 May 1977 in Milan during a demonstration organised by the extra-parliamentary left. His lawyer affirmed that he was in a legitimate situation in France, according to what was agreed when he arrived in the country back in 1982: in order to be considered as out of clandestinity, he submitted to regular police controls and abandoned all criminal activity in both countries¹. He also obtained French nationality, but these actions were not enough to convince Italy to waive his extradition^1. Calvitti and Ventura are not the only ones who will have to face this legal procedure. The former militants affected by this new order and their respective political parties or organisations to which they belonged are: Giorgio Pietrostefani of ‘Lotta Continua’; Roberta Cappelli, Marina Petrella, Maurizio Di Marzio, Sergio Tornaghi, Enzo Calvitti and Giovanni Alimonti of ‘Red Brigades’; Narciso Manenti of ‘Nuclei Armati’; Luca Bergamin of ‘Proletari Armati’; Raffaele Ventura of ‘Autonomia Operaia’².

This case traces its origins back to the so-called ‘Years of Leads’ (from Italian: ‘Anni di Piombo’),  thus named because of the high number of shootings that occurred in Italy from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, and the above-mentioned former militants participated directly or indirectly in one or more crimes during this period. The fact that they could stay in France to avoid serving their respective sentences in Italy, thus gave rise to the so-called ‘Mitterrand Doctrine’.

The socio-political scenario back then was characterised by social conflicts and political tension, as well as a number of acts of terrorism carried out by right and left-wing political and student organisations. This period started in a tense political climate, marked by the so-called ‘Hot Autumn’ strikes in 1969. In the following months, there was an escalation of terrorist attacks with the killing of policeman Andrea Annarumma during a public protest organised by the Italian Communist Party (PCI), the Piazza Fontana bombing on 12 December 1969 provoked by the extreme right and the subsequent death of anarchist Giuseppe Spinelli, wrongly accused of the massacre and who died in uncertain circumstances in police custody³. Many other incidents such as the Borghese Coup (1970), the ‘Piazza della Loggia’ bombing in Brescia (1974), the White Coup (1974), the Italicus train bombing (1974), the Bologna massacre (1980) stained this era with blood; but its ultimate climax was the kidnapping and assassination, orchestrated by the Red Brigades, of Christian Democrat secretary and former prime minister Aldo Moro (1978). With his left-leaning view, he was implementing a deal called the ‘Historic Compromise’, trying to include the PCI headed by Enrico Berlinguer in the Italian government, but his plan was abandoned after his death.

Many militants accused of taking part in these terrorist acts fled to countries that granted them protection thanks to their asylum policies: most of them went to France, while others opted for South American countries such as Brazil and Nicaragua. The French Socialist President at the time, François Mitterand (1916-1996), elaborated a policy, presented for the first time during a speech at the Palais des Sports in Rennes on February 1st 1985, that refused to accord extradition of Italian citizen involved in the Years of Lead violent acts, exept in case of “active, actual, bloody terrorism”⁴. He then affirmed at the 65th Congress of the Human Rights League, on 21 April 1985, that “Italian refugees (…) who took part in terrorist action before 1981 (…) have broken links with the infernal machine in which they participated, have begun a second phase of their lives, have integrated into French society (…) I told the Italian government that they were safe from any sanction by the means of extradition”⁵.

The raison d’être of the Mitterand Doctrine is controversial. According to an article published in 2007 by the Italian newspaper ‘Il Corriere della Sera’, it was the French Catholic priest Abbé Pierre who persuaded Mitterrand to pursue this policy⁶, while according to the lawyers of the former militant Cesare Battisti, he took this decision following consultations with Bettino Craxi, the then Italian Socialist PM. Analysing Mitterrand’s policy in more depth, ever since he was Minister of Justice in the Guy Mollet government during the Algerian war, he had declared himself opposed to emergency and exception laws, considered political violence legitimate in certain cases and prioritised human rights issues: this makes his position in the fight against terrorism consistent over time⁷. The Mitterrand doctrine has never been defined or embodied in any law.

Decades after the events, the extradition of ten former terrorists definitively marks the end of the Mitterrand doctrine. Despite the fact that the policy had already been ‘violated’ in 2002 with the extradition of Paolo Perisichetti, ex-member of the Red Brigades, and that the French Council of State had declared it of no legal value, France continued to deny the extradition of numerous ex-militants during the years. Other releases followed, without France ever accepting the Italian requests in their entirety, often due to problems with the Italian criminal investigation: France could not accept its legal conclusions because the accusations often came from a so-called ‘pentito’ (a former criminal who later repented), a figure not recognised by the French legal system⁸. For this reason, it is worth noting that it never happened until April 2021 that France granted extradition for such a large number of former terrorists, thus marking a turning point in diplomatic relations between France and Italy concerning asylum policies and  in the dismissal of the Mitterrand Doctrine. Many ex-terrorists are still missing from the roll call to be extradited to Italy to serve their sentences, and we expect France to be cooperative after setting a precedent like this.

There are several reasons, although not all yet confirmed by official sources, that justify the choice of French President Emmanuel Macron to grant extradition during the spring of 2021 and explain why the doctrine has come to a standstill. In particular, we recognise the impact that recent terrorist attacks had on France’s new security policies. We also acknowledge the positive influence of the relationship between French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Mario Draghi on diplomatic relations between France and Italy and the importance of President Macron’s current political choices on the upcoming presidential elections. First of all, Italy was trembling because of terrorism  in the ‘Years of Lead’, and France has found itself in a similar though not entirely comparable situation, with the attacks that have plagued it in recent years. As stated by the Elysée “France, itself affected by terrorism, understands the victims’ absolute need for justice. Through this handover, it is also consistent with the imperative need to build a Justice Europe, in which mutual trust must be at the centre”. 

Among the many attacks, we will mention the Charlie Hebdo shooting (7 January 2015), the Paris attacks (13 November 2015), the Nice truck attack (14 July 2016), the Normandy church attack (26 July 2016), the Champs-Élysées attack (April 2017), the Marseille attack (1 October 2017), the Strasbourg attack (11 December 2018) and the two extreme right-wing attacks on mosques in Brest and Bayonne (27 June and 28 October 2019). These tragic incidents did not leave France impassive: following the Paris attacks, President François Hollande proclaimed the state of emergency (from French: état d’urgence) in November 2015, which was then replaced when President Emmanuel Macron introduced the 1510 Act to reinforce internal security (30 November 2017). Given that the Mitterrand doctrine opposed Italian anti-terrorism laws in some regards, it cannot be ruled out that the French decision to bury this policy was taken with the precise aim of removing obstacles to possible future diplomatic cooperation concerning terrorism. For example, if in the future there will be French terrorists seeking political asylum in Italy, France can hope for greater cooperation from its neighbour country if it proves willing to give in Italian ex-terrorists today.

Secondly, it cannot be denied that this successful bilateral operation would not have happened without good diplomatic and political relations between France and Italy. In this regard, we must remember how much the relationship between the two states had soured back in 2018-2019: main tensions concerned not only the extradition of Cesare Battisti in 2019, but also the issue of high-speed trains on the border between the two countries, Di Maio’s visit to the yellow vests in France and several immigration incidents.

This led France to recall its ambassador in Rome, and Italy did the same with its one in Paris, and it is worth noting that the previous time an ambassador was recalled it was in 1940 and Italy had just declared war on France.

After these tensions with the then deputy PM Salvini and Di Maio, the Mattarella-Conte-Macron relationship healed in February 2020¹⁰. Later, it improved with the arrival in government of former European Central Bank President Mario Draghi on 13 February 2021, and also with a number of diplomatic and political developments in Libya on which the two have been cooperating¹¹. The reconciliation has also been confirmed by Italian President Sergio Mattarella’s state visit to President Macron in Paris between 5 and 6 July 2021.Last but not least, it should be added that the extradition of the Italian ex-terrorists to France is a judicial but also very political decision. In fact, in less than a year’s time, the current French President Emmanuel Macron will run for the presidential elections,which is why every current political choice he makes may be decisive sfor his re-election. He chose to keep a firm position on the fight against crime and terrorism, as well as on national security issues: in particular, he introduced the 1510 Act to reinforce internal security after the recent terrorist attacks, as mentioned above. Therefore, being inconsistent between domestic and foreign policy would not work in his favour at all if he is willing to be re-elected. Furthermore, the Macron government has always had a pro-European stance, and has in particular supported the creation of a common European legal space. The union of EU states against the threat of terrorism is undoubtedly a fundamental pillar to strengthen future European law on this topic.

[1] La Repubblica (2021), Secoli d’Italia (2021), L’Eco di Bergamo (2021), Le Monde (2021)

[2] RaiNews (2021)

[3] Indro Montanelli, Mario Cervi, L’Italia degli Anni di Piombo (1991)

[4] François Mitterrand, Speech at the Palais des Sports in Rennes (1st February 1985)

[5] François Mitterrand, Speech at the  65th Congress of the Human Rights League (LDH) (21 April 1985)

[6] Massimo Nava, Il Corriere della Sera, Abbé Pierre, il frate ribelle che scelse gli emarginati (23 January  2007)

[7]Marco Gervasoni, Claude Sophie Mazéas, La gauche italienne, les socialistes français et les origines de la doctrine (2010)

[8] Nino Maiorino, Ulisse Online (2021)

[9] French Presidency announcement (28 April 2021)

[10] Conchita Sannino, La Repubblica, Dossier Anni di Piombo: la Francia ora riapre al rimpatrio di 11 terroristi  (11 April 2021)

[11]  Jean-Pierre Darnis, Université Côte d’Azur and Istituto affari internazionali, Se Macron guarda con interesse a Draghi (2021); Maria Grazia Rutigliano, Luiss University, Telefonata tra Draghi e Macron: due leader europei sempre più vicini (22 April 2021)