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)

Can Christiane Taubira move France from repressive to restorative justice?

Christiane Taubira

Two women are making headlines in Europe and in France: Marine Le Pen and Christiane Taubira. Marine Le Pen leads the Nationalist party “Front National”(FN) that got 25% of the French votes, with a very low turnout, at the recent European Elections in France. Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, will introduce her reform of the penal system for debate at the parliament in June.

These two women have a dramatically different vision of society. Le Pen developed her message using leftist critiques of neoliberal policies and then proposing xenophobic and populist solutions that actually end up benefitting those who thrive on the policies. Her communication technique is based on political spectacle to discourage any kind of debate. Given the opportunity, she would send any opposition to jail. Marine Le Pen participates in the creation of a nationalist right that openly accuses migrants; the poor and any and all marginalized populations of being responsible for any capitalist crisis. Similarly, the Republican Party in the United States has absorbed the extreme tea party branch and normalized the same type of approach of political spectacle in the political debate.

In this context, the coming debate over the penal reform bill will stage a political spectacle with no intention to actually address the question of incarceration and justice. The right and extreme right have shown no inhibition in attacking Christiane Taubira on racist and disrespectful terms.

Meanwhile, Christiane Taubira and her collaborators have undertaken the difficult task of reinserting human values into a penal system that had evolved to serve neoliberal policies. The previous Sarkozy administration responded to calls for prison as the only solution. These policies were fueled with a rhetoric of fear and security, which produced a fertile terrain for the development of political parties such as the FN. Under the aegis of security, the goal was to normalize the punitive control of populations increasingly marginalized by the reduction of social protection and public services, and increasingly precarious working conditions.

Taubira’s ministry has worked on this project since the beginning of her appointment. Consultations were broad and produced a great number of recommendations, especially from the Conference of the Consensus. This multi layer review system brought comprehensive recommendations largely directed at lowering the rate of repeat offenders with more productive solutions for offenders, moving away from mandatory sentencing.

According to Christiane Taubira, the central aspect of the bill is to establish restorative justice. The bill would abolish minimum sentencing, deemed one of the worst legacies of the previous president. It promotes case-by-case individual sentencing. Victims would benefit from a more distributive and generous support system. The bill would reduce “dry release” from prison, which means release without supportive measures for reentry.

The key is the criminal coercion measure, which supplies the judge with an array of sentencing possibilities, including injunction to care. Prison would no longer be the only resource available. This measure was to be applied to all offences. Many voices opposed this measure including within the government, from Prime Minister Manuel Vals to Minister of Interior Bernard Cazeneuve and finally to President Hollande. The men of State united to demand that the criminal coercion measure be limited to offences shorter than five years. The problem is that the criminalization of drug use has lengthened sentences beyond five years. A parliamentary technicality allowed representatives to amend the text so that Taubira’s initial bill could be restored. After the council of ministers on Friday, the President made clear that he would not tolerate this part of the bill without a five-year ceiling.

For these three leading men from a Left government, what is the basis of their vision of criminal law? Is it that incarcerating bodies is the best means to render justice, or is it that the climate of intolerance and suspicion, brilliantly exploited by right and extreme right nationalist elites, has forced them to compromise?

Marine Le Pen and the right in general, have accused Christiane Taubira of defending migrants and delinquents. They made this myth the main argument of their campaign. There is nothing new here. Ronald Reagan used mythologies of the welfare queen to win election. This simplification of social debate to mythical images erases the complexities of the current political economy.

This is the climate that awaits Chritiane Taubira as she engages parliament in a debate about the role of incarceration in connection with the protections of civil society, which implies a reduction of inequalities. As labor and social laws are being compromised to serve a financial market that has no desire to protect society but rather seeks to fragment it in order to utilize it, Taubira begins a national debate on mass incarceration as a function of a political economy of growing inequality.

Hopefully, the President, who claimed to be a progressive change agent, will support his Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira in her attempt to transform the criminal justice system and abandon repressive justice in favor of restorative justice and a restoration of civil society protections. We’ll see.


(Photo Credit: Libération / Joël Saget /AFP)