Chances are, you’ve never heard of her. But the resignation of France’s much-maligned justice minister, Christiane Taubira, spells the exit from François Hollande’s cabinet of a rare voice of compassion for those on society’s margins.
In a country with a soft spot for lofty titles, the official name of France’s Justice Minister – the “Garde des Sceaux”, or “Keeper of the Seals” – is in keeping with the solemnity of the function.
The holder of the title has historically been tasked with affixing the seal of France – the imprimatur of the country’s highest legal authority – on constitutional amendments and important laws.
Before her resignation on Wednesday, Justice Minister Christine Taubira fought passionately to stamp that “Republican” seal of approval on laws that granted greater rights and stronger protections to society’s excluded, from gay couples to prisoners.
It’s a mission that came naturally to Taubira.
She was the sixth of eight children born into a family in French Guiana, a racially divided overseas French department.
This heritage imbued her with a strong sense of justice for society’s down-and-outs.
It also made her an outlier on France’s political landscape – and a target of racial slurs from the far right.
In a notorious incident, a politician from the National Front was sentenced to nine months in prison after comparing Taubira to an ape. (Taubira is black.)
The same politician said in a TV appearance that she would prefer to see Taubira “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government".
That was obviously an extreme case. But it underscored the reflexive animosity towards her on the far fringes of the political spectrum.
Taubira’s convictions, and the ideals from which they stemmed, made her an increasingly polarising figure in a France that’s at loggerheads over issues of race, ethnicity and national identity.
Taubira first made her name as a lower-house backbencher in 2001. That's the year she drafted historic legislation recognising slavery and the slave trade as a crime against humanity.
In 2002, she became the first black woman to run for the French presidency. She placed 13th in a crowded field, with a little over 2 percent of the vote.
It was the historic election in which the far-right’s then leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, squeaked past the Socialist standard-bearer, Lionel Jospin, into the second round.
A heroine of the left
Many on the left blamed Taubira – unjustly – for fatally splitting the leftist vote.
As Hollande’s Justice Minister, she became a heroine of the left and of gay couples everywhere when she rode out fierce protests to push for a nationwide law authorising same-sex marriage – making France the 14th country to do so.
But she also clashed with the prime minister, Manuel Valls, over penal reform.
Valls publicly disagreed with Taubira’s preference for a humanitarian approach to sentencing, one that put the emphasis on education and rehabilitation, over punishment alone.
At a time when poll-conscious politicians in France are staking out harder lines on the economy and security, the political landscape has shifted to the right.
Taubira was not a member of Hollande’s Socialist party, but of the Radical Party of the Left (which is not as radical as its title may imply).
For a while, she was admired, even embraced, by many within Hollande’s government as someone who personified the values that they associated with the left.
Taubira brought a mix of rhetorical passion and lyrical flair to the job.
Sticking to her guns
In her speeches in parliament or on the streets she habitually cited verses from favourite poets and writers, from Aimé Césaire (“My négritude is not a cathedral. Négritude is not just pride in being black, it’s the rejection of domination and oppression in the world.”) to Léon Gontran Damas.
While Taubira has stuck to her ideological guns, and her ideals, over her four years as minister, Hollande’s government has not.
Caught up in the security-at-all-costs zeitgeist, marked by an ongoing state of emergency, fears of homegrown jihadism and anxiety over a migrant crisis that shows few signs of subsiding, Hollande and his cohorts have been tacking right.
For Taubira, the last straw was a proposed law, to be enshrined in France’s constitution, that would strip French-born citizens convicted of a terrorist offense of their French citizenship – if they hold a second citizenship. French lawmakers are due to consider the reform in early February.
This Wednesday, the government, under fire, announced it would drop the controversial reference to “dual nationals” from the proposed amendment. But there is no indication that the proposal itself will be withdrawn – simply re-worded.
For Taubira, the measure, aside from being ineffective, is antithetical to everything she believes in.
In a parting lyrical flourish, Taubira tweeted: “Sometimes to resist means staying, sometimes to resist means leaving.”
She is leaving with her head held high, and without looking back.