In French gay marriage debate, a political star is born
On January 29, French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira appeared before the National Assembly to defend a bill that would allow gay couples to marry and adopt in France. The speech has galvanised the left and given LGBT activists a new icon.
When French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira took to the podium before the National Assembly on January 29 to defend a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt, she was known mainly as one of France’s few black politicians.
When she stepped down, the once-marginalised left-wing official was on her way to becoming the star of a debate that has gripped France’s ruling class, as well as French society at large, over the past few months.
In a sweeping, strongly worded address that was by turns fiery and lyrical, the 61-year-old Taubira mounted a passionate endorsement of a law that Socialist President François Hollande has been seen as only tepidly supporting himself.
Not hesitating to directly confront the right-leaning opposition, which has portrayed the bill as a threat to the traditional family unit and the well-being of children, the minister of justice said: “It is hypocrisy to refuse to recognise these gay couples and their children….and it is selfish to think that one of the Republic’s institutions could be reserved for a category of citizens”.
The Socialist-controlled Parliament is expected to approve the bill in the coming months, and Taubira tried to appeal to the opponents’ broader sense of history and legacy. “Your children and grandchildren already recognise these couples and families, and will do so more and more,” she said. “You will be very uncomfortable when, out of curiosity, they read the transcripts of these debates.”
“We are proud of what we are doing,” Taubira declared toward the end of her speech, articulating each word with care.
Too far to the left for the spotlight?
An economist originally from a large, poor family in French Guiana (one of France’s overseas territories), Taubira is no stranger to French political life -- though her views, decisively to the left of the mainstream, have until now kept her just outside the national spotlight.
Since founding the “Walwari” party (which takes its name from a Native American word for “fan”) in 1993, the divorced mother of four has represented French Guiana in France’s Parliament, served in the European Parliament from 1994 to 1999, and run for president in 2002 on the Radical Party of the Left ticket (garnering 2.3% of the first-round vote).
When Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin failed to advance to the second round of the 2002 presidential election (leaving sitting president Jacques Chirac to face off against far-right firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen), Taubira was accused of siphoning off votes that would logically have gone to Jospin.
Over the course of her career, Taubira has nevertheless earned a reputation as a fierce champion of women and minorities. One of her highest-profile moments came when she authored a law, adopted last year, categorising the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity.
Taubira’s tenure as minister of justice was initially the subject of scorching attacks from the right. Jean-François Copé, secretary general of the opposition UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party, warned voters against straying to the far-right National Front in future elections. “When you vote National Front, the left wins….and we end up with Taubira”.
Even allies on the left have, in the past, described the minister of justice as inflexible and a bit of a bully. “Christiane Taubira is not nice, and not at all angelic,” historian Pascal Blanchard, a friend of Taubira, told daily newspaper Libération in June. “She is tough and authoritarian.”
But following her speech on January 29, the minister of justice was praised by politicos on both sides of the aisle. “To have a minister be so enthusiastic of course gives us greater pride and more energy,” Olivier Dussopt, a Socialist representative from the southern Ardèche area, told journalists. And right-wing (UMP) representative Jean-Frédéric Poisson, a staunch opponent of gay marriage and adoption, told Libération that he has “respect for [Taubira] as a fighter…and for her talent”.
Meanwhile, LGBT activists who have been craving full-throated support for marriage and adoption equality from the government immediately lauded Taubira as a new icon. “You could call it Taubiramania,” said Yannick Barbe, editor-in-chief of gay and lesbian news site Yagg. “We were missing a charismatic figure in our fight for equal rights. Now we have one.”
Barbe added that “it is important to note that she was speaking without looking down at her notes; she was sincere, empowered by her mission”.
In the wake of the speech, Yagg has launched a line of T-shirts with the slogan “#TeamTaubira” displayed on the front. They are selling smashingly, Barbe said.
Taubira’s performance in front of the National Assembly, and her defence of the same-sex marriage and adoption law in general, have earned her flattering comparisons to two towering symbols of social justice in France: Simone Veil, who, as minister of health, fought to legalise abortion in 1975, and Robert Badinter, a former justice minister who led the effort to abolish the death penalty in 1981.
Indeed Taubira seemed aware of the potential of her big moment, choosing to distinguish her speech from more dryly partisan addresses with a concluding flourish of poetry that brought dozens of her left-leaning colleagues to their feet.
Beaming at her audience, the minister of justice cited Guyanese writer Léon-Gontran Damas : “The act we will accomplish [in passing this law] is ‘as beautiful as a rose that the Eiffel Tower, at last, can see blooming.’ It is ‘as great as our need for fresh air.’ It is ‘as strong as a piercing cry in a long, long night’.”