How Maverick Christiane Taubira Is Transforming French Politics

The first black woman to run in France’s presidential elections in 2002,Christiane Taubira, is an unstoppable force. From fighting for same-sex marriage legislation to reforming the law as justice minister, she has blazed her own trail.

French justice minister Christiane Taubira

Christiane Taubira during debate on legalising same-sex marriage at the French National Assembly in February 2013. Photograph: Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images

France’s current justice minister is also the heroine of French gay people for having fought tooth and nail in parliament in favour of same-sex marriage, and the nemesis of its fierce opponents who still demonstrate against a law they consider “legal but not legitimate”.

French Guiana-born Taubira is not your average politician. She can be histrionic like Boris Johnson, and certainly shares his taste for verve and his skill for faultless speeches without notes. During the marathon debates that took place day and night at the French national assembly over same-sex marriage, she quoted poets René Char and Paul Ricoeur but also négritude writers such as Aimé Césaire and Léon Gontran Damas.

Her rhetorical style is a cross between gospel and opera and, with a voice like Billie Holiday, according to French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, she has left more than one parliamentarian gobsmacked. Unlike Johnson, however, she’s always elegant and dressed to the nines. But they are both mavericks. Him of the British right, her of the French left. Brilliant and unpredictable, they are the kind of public figures who inspire awe, adoration even, but also considerable irk.

In 2002, during the presidential campaign, Taubira was for instance reported as saying: “Fortunately I have strong inhibitions – if not I’d be wringing some people’s necks like chickens.” Not precisely wise for an aspiring head of state.

An MP for 20 years and a divorced mother of four children, Taubira is too independent to belong to one party. Over the years, she has drifted from one small party to another, always keeping to the left of the political spectrum. Today she’s “affiliated” to François Hollande’s Socialist party. But as she recently confided to the New York Times: “I can’t stand having a boss. My conscience is my boss, and my conscience dictates rules that are extremely, I’d say, grand – they’re rough but beautiful.” President Hollande won’t mind, nor will most of the French people – they have come to know her, that’s the way she is.

Before setting the tenor of same-sex marriage parliamentary debates, she left her mark in 2001 with a law that bears her name. The Taubira law recognises the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity. Today, as justice minister, she’s trying to mend relations in the judiciary, especially after Nicolas Sarkozy’s antagonistic five years in power, which got both lawyers and magistrates up in arms against an arsenal of repressive measures that left little time to prevent.

She has, however, been increasingly at loggerheads with the energetic interior minister Manuel Valls, a rising star of the French Socialist party, who positioned himself at the right of the party. He is in favour of strict sentencing, especially for career criminals and repeat offenders, while she has always championed a humanist reform of the prison and penal system. The criminal law reform is her next battle; no doubt she will fight hard to advance, as she calls them, her “rough but beautiful” ideas.

– The Guardian