Top cop vs leftist icon rivalry grips French Socialists
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The rivalry between Interior Minister Manuel Valls and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira has fed the French media through the silly season. Attention is now turning to its effect on the ruling majority in the lead up to local elections next year.
France is emerging from the August political torpor with the traditional Socialist Party summer school in the seaside resort of La Rochelle this weekend, and Saturday’s programme summarises the main fault line within the ruling left-wing coalition.
At 11.15am, tough-on-crime Manuel Valls is the keynote speaker at a session on how to “make democracy win against the far-right”. Three hours later, Christiane Taubira is due to lead a debate on judicial policy aiming to end former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy’s "five years of penal populism”.
The solutions offered by the two ministers in charge of fighting crime appear to diverge radically. “Manuel Valls gives priority to repression and prison sentences. That’s a right-wing approach. Christiane Taubira favours prevention and reformation. That’s the left-wing line,” says political analyst Thomas Guénolé, who lectures at Sciences-Po in Paris.
Amazonia vs. Barcelona
Christiane Taubira (61) hails from the Amazonian overseas territory of French Guyana and started her career as an economist. A member of the Radical Left Party (a moderate, centre-left coalition partner despite its historic name), she is the first black woman to hold a senior portfolio in a French government. Her profile rose sharply when she defended legislation allowing same-sex marriage at the beginning of this year.
Barcelona-born Manuel Valls, ten years her junior, cut his teeth winning elections in the tough suburbs of Paris. A member of President François Hollande’s Socialist Party, he has been the current government’s most popular member in consistent opinion polls for much of the past year.
Competition between the two figures erupted into an open clash mid-August when a note by the interior minister that sharply criticised Christiane Taubira’s justice reform bill was leaked to the press. The proposed legislation drafted by the justice minister -- following advice from a list of experts with various political views -- would end mandatory minimum sentencing for repeat offenders and offer more alternatives to prison terms.
Manuel Valls again proved he did not mince his words when details of a closed-door cabinet seminar on prospects for France in 2025 emerged in French media this week. He questioned current legislation allowing immigrants to obtain residency permits for their immediate family under certain conditions as well as Islam's compatibility with democracy.
Christiane Taubira retaliated in a speech at the Green Party’s summer school on Thursday. “If we give in to the temptation of reliance on martial speeches, great threats and intimidating virility – if we give in to that, then, as Césaire would say, France will have pulled on itself the sheet of deep darkness”.
The reference to the French West Indian poet Aimé Césaire is part of her trademark peppering of speeches with literary quotes.
"Prison has a role to play"
Manuel Valls style is different, with frequent off-the-cuff remarks during flash visits at crime scenes around the country. “It is up to the judiciary to hand down very severe sanctions, to match this cowardly and intolerable crime,” he said on Friday after armed robbers shot a pensioner dead earlier in the week. “Prison has a role to play ... without sanction, there is impunity,” he added.
With six months to go before municipal elections, the ruling majority can use the two figures to bridge the gap between different types of voters.
“When the conservatives are on the offensive with all-prison policies, the majority can send in Manuel Valls and it turns into a right vs. right debate. Conversely, when the left wing of the Socialist Party or the extreme left are asking for guarantees, they can use Christiane Taubira,” said Thomas Guénolé.
On her blog on Thursday, the Socialist Party’s national secretary for justice Marie-Pierre de la Gontrie acknowledged there had been some praise for Manuel Valls’s position within party ranks. She then went on to defend the justice minister: “To get the full picture, it is just as important to demonstrate how useful Christiane Taubira is to justice and to the left,” she wrote.
Yet Thomas Guénolé warns that the policies promoted by the competing ministers are plainly incompatible.
“If François Hollande supports Manuel Valls, he will lose left-wing voters. If he chooses Christiane Taubira, he will lose on the right,” Thomas Guénolé said.
He added: “In my opinion, right-wing supporters do not vote for the Socialist Party in any case, and the left will need all the votes it can get as early as the first round of polling. In electoral terms, his interest would be to lean towards Taubira’s line.”