PARIS – French President Nicolas Sarkozy, true to his law-and-order reputation, is offering no mass mercy to the nation's prisoners on Bastille Day this year.
Sarkozy said in an interview published Sunday that he is breaking -- yet again -- from traditions championed by his predecessor Jacques Chirac, this time by refusing to grant a mass pardon to thousands of prisoners on the nation's biggest holiday, July 14.
Chirac and previous leaders had used the measure to relieve chronic overcrowding in French prisons, a move supported by prisoners' rights groups and prison guards. Several categories of violent or dangerous criminals are excluded.
"There will be no mass pardon," Sarkozy told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, confirming a pledge he made during his presidential campaign this spring.
He said he had been presented with a decree proposing the release of 3,000 prisoners. "Since when has the right to pardon served as a way to manage prisons?"
He said he would issue individual pardons on a case-by-case basis for "humanitarian or exceptional reasons."
"Someone jumps in the Seine River, and saves three drowning children. It turns out he has a criminal record. The presidential pardon could play a role here," he was quoted as saying.
Chirac came under fire for using presidential pardons for personal reasons when he cleared his friend and former athlete Guy Drut of corruption charges last year.
According to judicial figures, France's prisons house nearly 61,000 prisoners but were built to take only 50,000 inmates.
Prison officers have expressed concern about a backlash by inmates expecting a pardon, and a new crush of inmates because of a draft law championed by Sarkozy imposing minimum sentences for repeat offenders.
Gabrielle Mouesca, a former inmate and president of the French section of the International Observatory of Prisons, denounced conditions in the nation's jails, saying on RTL radio that the decision "risks becoming the spark that will set French prisons ablaze."
Bastille Day commemorates the 1789 storming of the former Bastille prison in Paris by angry crowds, sparking the revolution that rid France of its monarchy.