Cesare Battisti’s French connection

Former left-wing activist Cesare Battisti is escorted by Italian police after his arrival in Rome, 14 January 2019.
Former left-wing activist Cesare Battisti is escorted by Italian police after his arrival in Rome, 14 January 2019. Reuters/Max Rossi

Cesare Battisti, a former fugitive who began serving a life sentence on the island of Sardinia this week after a nearly 40-year run from the law, was one of several hundred left-wing Italian activists who found refuge in France in the 1980s and 1990s under a policy that irked diplomats and marks Franco-Italian relations to this day.


Cesare Battisti’s return to Italy to serve a life sentence in prison may have followed arrest in Bolivia after fleeing Brazil, but the Italian government also took the opportunity to set its sights on France.

“I appeal to the French president to return to Italy the fugitives that should not be drinking champagne under the Eiffel tower, but should be rotting in jail in Italy,” Salvini told Italian television on Tuesday.

Salvini’s words refer to the left-wing Italians who sought refuge in France in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the aftermath of the Years of Lead, a period of political violence in which more than 400 people died in bombings, assassinations and street clashes.

France protected them from extradition under a policy known as the Mitterrand Doctrine, named for President Mitterrand, which allowed them to stay on the condition that they renounced violence and had no blood on their hands.

While Rome newspaper La Repubblica estimates only nine such individuals remain in France, Salvini’s words show the lasting effects that France’s position has had on relations between the two countries.

Troubled youth in troubled times

Born in 1954, Battisti grew up in a period marked by political instability and the growing activity of radical extra-parliamentary groups across the ideological spectrum.

Deadly bombings in Rome and Milan in 1969, which were initially attributed to left-wing groups and now generally accepted as the work of far-right activists, helped trigger the Years of Lead and the appearance of armed groups, the most infamous being the far-left Red Brigades.

The young Battisti dropped out of school two years later, turning to petty crime and then more serious offences before joining a smaller group, the Armed Proletarians for Communism (PAC), after moving to Milan in 1976.

In the midst of four assassinations claimed by the PAC in 1979, Battisti was arrested, convicted for membership of an armed group and sentenced to twelve and a half years in jail.

He escaped with the help of PAC members in 1981 and fled first to Paris and then Mexico, where he began writing and established a literary revue. He returned to France in 1990 and, after a short jail term, worked as a concierge and wrote the first of 15 novels.

During this time, Italian courts held a new trial in absentia, and Battisti was eventually convicted of responsibility in all four assassinations and handed a life sentence.

Battisti acknowledged he was a member of the PAC but denied involvement in the killings. Both convictions were based on a mix of material evidence and testimony of former accomplices, who received lighter sentences under controversial anti-terror legislation of the time.

The Mitterrand Doctrine and its aftermath

Following the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro at the hands of the Red Brigades in 1978, left-wing activists began to realise they were more likely to end up in jail than trigger a revolution.

As many as 300 people fled to France, where they benefitted from protection from extradition that President François Mitterrand officialised in the doctrine that bears his name in 1985.

The policy had no legal value and could not confer refugee status, but it was a guarantee that the individuals could stay in France on the condition that they renounced the use of violence and had no convictions for the most deadly crimes.

The policy upset the Italians, who put France under constant media and diplomatic pressure to explain what they saw as an unfounded affront to their democratic legitimacy.

“There was an opinion at this time, including in the circles of power, that Italy was not exactly a democratic country, and that it tended to be more indulgent to far-right terrorists than activists on the left,” says Guillaume Origani, who is writing a doctoral thesis on political violence during the period at the University of Paris at Nanterre.

“There was no doubt judgements were rendered in Italy with the same serenity, and same flaws, as in France,” Origoni says. “France had no superiority in that regard.”

France’s position began to shift after the election of right-wing president Jacques Chirac in 1995, who said he would not oppose the extradition of persons wanted by Italian courts.

But many former activists were nonetheless able to stay in France, where they had begun new lives as de-facto refugees, holding jobs, raising families, having friendly relations with their communities and not causing any trouble.

Others, including the political theorist Toni Negri, voluntarily returned to Italy to face the charges against them.

By the end of Chirac’s presidency, France had only carried out one extradition request of a former Italian activist, that of former Red Brigades member Paolo Persichetti in 2002.

Questions of whether France supported Battisti

Battisti himself had long enjoyed the support of French writers and intellectuals including Fred Vargas and Bernard-Henri Lévy, all while embodying somewhat of a contradiction in France’s position.

“Battisti does not correspond to the protection guaranteed by the Mitterrand Doctrine, because he was accused of having blood on his hands,” Origoni notes. “According to those conditions, Cesare Battisti should not have benefitted.”

A series of court orders beginning in 2004 eventually authorised his extradition, but he was somehow able to go into hiding and make his way to Brazil in 2007, by his own claim with help from French secret services.

Such intrigue has made for much head-scratching on the part of the Italians and fuelled some of the lingering criticism in Italy over the Mitterrand Doctrine, which at its most extreme takes the form of a conspiracy theory that France was manipulating the situation to its advantage.

“In Italy today, many people are convinced that France provided a haven for terrorists in order to use them to gather information, to manipulate them, to make Paris a support base for Italian terrorism,” Origoni says.

“According to this theory, France provided a haven for Italian activists to act against Italy at a time when the two countries had opposing geopolitical interests. There are entire collections of successful books developing this conspiracy theory, even though it has not one shred of serious evidence to support it.”

Franco-Italian tensions linger

Whether his calls for French President Emmanuel Macron to extradite other leftists is driven by this mindset or simply by objection to Battisti’s years spent in France, Salvini’s words underline how diplomatic tensions of the Mitterrand years are resurfacing in the current political context.

Salvini has exchanged much congratulatory language with new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose election set into motion the chain of events that led Battisti to flee a new arrest warrant and to Bolivia, where he was nonetheless detained and extradited.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica claimed that nine fugitives remained in France, including three convicted for playing a role in the kidnapping of Aldo Moro.

Macron’s office did not comment, but a spokesperson in the justice ministry said the government had no detailed list of Italian fugitives living in France and would respond to extradition requests “on a case-by-case basis”.

Cesare Battisti Timeline

1954   Born in Cisterna di Latina on 18 December.
1971   Leaves school, turns to crime.
1976   Moves to Milan, becomes active with PAC.
1978   Former prime minister Aldo Moro is kidnapped on 16 March and assassinated on 9 May by the Red Brigades. On 6 June, prison guard Antonio Santoro is murdered in act claimed by PAC.
1979   Murders of jeweler Pierliugi Torregiani in Milan and butcher and far-right activist Lino Sabbadin near Mestre on 16 February. Battisti is arrested in jailed on 26 February, sentenced to twelve and a half years in prison for “participation in an armed group”. His conviction is party based on testimony provided by two former accomplices benefitting from the status of “collaboratori di giustizia” (collaborators of justice), which accorded lighter sentences in exchange for testimony against former accomplices. The status was established by anti-terrorist legislation enacted during this period. Law enforcement agent Andrea Campagna is murdered in Milan on 19 April.
1981   Battisti escapes from prison on 4 October with help of PAC. Flees to Paris and then Mexico, where he begins writing and establishes a literary revue.
1985   Mitterrand Doctrine officialises France’s protection from extradition to Italy.
1987   Opening of retrial of Battisti after testimony from Pietro Mutti, a former PAC leader who had sought “collaborator di giustizia” status, implicates Battisti in all four assassinations of 1979.
1988   Convicted for two assassinations and two counts of complicity in murder
1990   Returns to France.
1991   Arrested but released after five months as court rejects extradition order. Works as concierge and writes first of fifteen novels.
1995   Election of Jacques Chirac as president in France. Italian appeals court hands Battisti a life sentence.
1997   Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro refuses request for amnesty from Battisti and other leftist Italians in France.
2002   New extradition request and diplomatic dispute.
2004   Arrested in France on 10 February. Appeals court approved extradition on 30 June. Chirac says on 2 July he will not oppose extradition. Violates parole by failing to check in with police on 21 August. Goes underground.
2005   The Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, rules in favour of extradition.
2006   European Court of Human Rights rejects Battisti’s claim that the French extradition ruling was illegitimate.
2007   Flees to Brazil, where he is arrested on 18 March.
2009   Granting of refugee status spurns diplomatic spat between Brazil and Italy. Speculation that French first lady Carla Bruni exerted influence in Battisti’s favour. Supreme Court overturns ruling but leaves extradition decision to the country’s left-wing president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
2010   Lula denies extradition request in the last days of his term, 29 December.
2011   Supreme Court upholds Lula’s decision on 8 June. Italy announces it will complain in the International Court of Justice.
2013   Battisti works as a realtor in a town near Sao Paulo.
2015   Judge orders deportation in March. Battisti marries in June. Deportation order is overturned in September.
2018   Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro promises to extradite Battisti if elected. Outgoing president Michel Temer issues arrest warrant during last days of term, late December.
2019   Arrested in Bolivia. Extradited to Rome on 12 January. Begins serving life sentence in a prison on the island of Sardinia.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app