Evolution of a scandal in France

Christiane Taubira announces new penal reform plan

Christiane Taubira announces new penal reform plan

Last Saturday the dispute between Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls and Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira concluded …  at least for now. First, Taubira responded to Valls’ letter by debunking the manipulation of numbers and ideas that were the basis of his attacks on her reform agenda. In so doing, Taubira underlined the dangers of exploitation in penal populism.

Then she announced the main points of her penal reform proposal. She called for an end to the “enfermer, enfermer sans cesse” (lock up, ceaselessly lock up) doctrine of the past 10 years when Nicolas Sarkozy was, first, Minister of the Interior and, then, President. In a speech to Europe Ecologie Les Verts, Taubira described these as ten years that had damaged French society, ten years of constant social tension, “of martial discourses, of great threats, of intimidating virility”.

The crux of Taubira’s reform is repeat sentences. About 58% of the offenders in France re-offend.  In response to this crisis, she proposed alternative sentencing, known as probationary sentencing, for any sentences under five years. Probationary sentencing would be used at the discretion of the judge.

Taubira further announced the official end of mandatory sentencing. She explained that her approach to reform is both serious and rigorous. To that end, she introduced a social component that would limit the “sorties seches” (or “dry releases”), releases that offer absolutely no personalized support.  The vast majority of releases from prison are of the “dry” variety.

In Europe, most sentences are short, anywhere from a few months to a few years. Nevertheless, the shock of incarceration, the shock at the series of humiliations, is enormous. Then the shock of being released without support is equally enormous and is considered a kind of second sentence. One third of the people in sheltered housing have been in prison before. Taubira amassed an array of measures and means to foster personalized assistance for former prisoners.

What lies behind Christiane Taubira’s announcement is a clear sign that we are witnessing the end of the pile of devastating penal laws passed in the last 10 years. Most, if not all, have just increased the tension between justice and society and increased the sentiment of malaise and insecurity.

The instrumentalization of victimhood in the political arena has changed the role of justice and served to construct a penal populism.

The latter has been used in the United States for political and economic purposes. It hurts and renders many people and communities more vulnerable. One should be particularly wary of the multiplication of laws after intense media coverage of crimes. For instance, the murder of Laci Peterson, eight months pregnant, in 2002 brought the Unborn Victims of Violent Act in 2004. Ever since, numerous pregnant women have been threatened and often wrongly convicted by this act. The consequences for pregnant women are dire, especially for poor women, and have affected reproductive rights in general.

The real scandal is the spread of poverty and social fractures, the real junction between the ruthless neoliberal global market and the population.

Christiane Taubira has to deal with a public opinion whose sentiment for “security” has been stirred up by the previous government, which shook the social solidarity system with its neoliberal privatization of public services. She is demonstrating that there is a way to get out of this logic of reactionary repressive system of punishment. In the end, she quoted the poet Rene Char “stupidity likes to govern…” She added that her goal is to destroy the methods that led to increased incarceration and have endangered the true security of a society.


(Photo Credit: Sebastien Calvet / Libération)

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.