France’s twisted road to restorative justice


Christiane Taubira

Christiane Taubira, France’s Minister of Justice, epitomizes the tensions and dilemmas that the neoliberal world order produces. The moment Taubira was nominated, she suffered countless personal attacks. Originally from the former French colony Guiana, she early on took strong positions for social and racial justice. Her career is marked by her independence from the establishment, and she has ruffled feathers on the right and the left.

Two years ago Christiane Taubira promised a profound transformation of the penal system. She posed the question of punishment from an angle that departed from the neoliberal mass incarceration common sense. She questioned the role of prisons in connection with citizenship, affirming that prison cannot be the only response in a penal system. In fact, although the public has been bombarded with populist rhetoric and images about punishment, a recent poll showed that 77% of the French said that prison is not a deterrent. She worked with a Consensus Conference that produced recommendations to diminish repeat offenses.

Her bill encountered a multitude of trials and negotiations. She faced constant opposition from the right, as was to be expected. However the President and his Prime Minister Manuel Vals, who has developed a “tough on crime” political persona, had open conflicts with many aspects of her bill.

Her commitment was rehabilitation and reinsertion in society, or simply de-insertion from the lock-up logic. Despite the many roadblocks encountered in the parliamentary process, the bill passed last week. One deputy from the right wing UMP voted in favor of the bill. Immediately after the last vote the opposition filed a complaint to the Constitutional Council to repeal it. Many feel that case will go nowhere

The bill includes a new system of probation for those sentenced to less than five years. This frees judges from the mandatory minimum sentences introduced by Sarkozy that has sent many to hopeless overcrowded prison. Taubira’s initial proposal did not link probation to eventual jail-time. A compromise was adopted giving the penal system the leeway to change probation to jail-time.

Minimum sentencing is now completely eliminated.

The correctional court for minors, established during the previous administration bringing the treatment of underage offenders closer to the one in the United States, has not been terminated yet as promised. However, Christiane Taubira gave assurances that these exceptional courts will disappear in the next series of bills concerning minors.

The bill guarantees more actual aid to victims, including financial aid.

In the midst of this important process, Anne-Sophie Leclere, a candidate for local election for the far-right Front National, posted on Facebook a photomontage comparing Christiane Taubira to a chimpanzee and then confirmed her racist views about Taubira on French television. A complaint was filed by an association and received. Neither the offender nor her lawyer deigned to appear in court for the trial. A French court in Cayenne in Guiana sentenced her to nine months in jail, and 50 000 Euros fine with a ban from running for office for five years. Her party, that excluded her later, was also fined.

Some have criticized the sentence as overly harsh. If so, let’s ask if probation should be an option here and if a rehabilitation is possible for Anne Sophie Leclere? Racism is a very serious offence that has been continuously trivialized while other petty offences have condemned thousands to years in jail.

Of course, the Sarkozy administration was not tough on financial crimes as it cut the power of the financial courts, which resulted in a decrease of sentencing for financial crimes from 101 cases in 2007 to 37 in 2010.

The debate over the reworking of the penal system in France is a reflection of the struggle against the controlling neoliberal world-order that uses insignificant figures to operate racist mechanisms in order to humiliate and discredit serious reformers. Incarceration has been normalized as a business to deal with the superfluous bodies of this market/debt economy. The latter relies on violence for a constant destabilization of a civil society. It is crucial to bring to light every fight that has a chance to change this irrational penal violence.


(Photo Credit: Libération / Stéphane de Sakutin / AFP)

About Brigitte Marti

Brigitte Marti is an organizer researcher who has worked on reproductive rights and women's health initiatives in France and in the European Union and on women prisoners' issues in the United States. She is a member of Women Included, a new transnational feminist collective, that is part of the Women 7, a coalition that advocates for the inclusion of women's rights in the G7.