Christiane Taubira, Superstar

Watch out Sego, there is a new star in town. Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira was due this afternoon to speak to a group of 100 on ending the Sarkozian approach to crime and punishment. Five times that turned up and she was duly upgraded to the same auditorium that Manuel Valls, Interior Minister, spoke in several hours beforehand, the crowd packed into the room. Few we’re there for the debate, which was a somewhat lazy presentation of the end of the right’s policies on justice. Most were there to hear her, and we were not disappointed.

Taubira, who, regardless of her political future, will be remembered by political historians due to the law opening up marriage to same sex couples in France, which bears her name, is not a universally loved figure in the party. First of all, she is not actually a member. In the tradition of the overseas territories, she is a member of a small socialist party in French Guiana, from whence she hails. But, as she told the crowd, her relationship with the socialists has been long and happy, despite her avowed inability to take orders (although she playfully assured us that she did from the Prime Minister).

Second, her performances are sometimes patchy. She is not good at question and answer formats, particularly on radio or television. She gets bogged down quickly in details, and whilst she has an impressive mastery of her brief, we perhaps could be spared the exact name of every commission she has marshalled under her charge. Where she excels is at speeches.

Third, her general philosophy is sometimes out of the step with the centre of the party (not to mention the right of the party which looks on with a mixture of awe and horror).

But she is riding high at the moment. From her nomination, when many thought that perhaps President Hollande had named her in a moment of madness (unfair considering her extensive experience as a parliamentarian), she has created both a style and a method all her own. She is respected by her opposition in parliament, adulated by Socialist MPs who have someone who really wants to work with them, and has even managed to calm the febrile nerves of the prickly judges’ unions. Her fearless drive to push through the law on equal marriage impressed many. She became famous for her parliamentary speeches, replete with literary references.

Amongst the thought provoking, and at times rather beautiful, words she gave yesterday, was real policy meat. The reform of criminal justice policy in France is emblematic in many ways, but far in a way the most striking proposal is to end the system of mandatory minimum sentences. Introduced as a panacea of effectiveness in bringing down crime rates and locking away the dangerous, the Sarkozy administration, ignoring much evidence from countries such as the UK or the US which have tried the same approach, energetically legislated to ensure that judges could no longer impose what the right saw as unduly lenient sentences. Whilst French judges are by no means perfect, the system of mandatory minimums (particularly for non violent drugs offences) often succeeds in locking up people who society has little need to be protected from when they go in, but may well need to be spared the result when they come out. French prisons are amongst the worst in Europe, due to a general disinterest and disinvestment in them by authorities and governments of both colours for the past 40 years. The result is a machine for manufacturing repeat offenders.

Whilst the UMP dogmatically sticks to an all-prison-all-the-time policy (although its approach in power was often more balanced), Taubira has braved the accusations of laxism to argue that both alternatives to prison and a probation system should be developed.

This judicial constraint will be both an accompanying measure for offenders at 2/3rds of their sentence, but also a form of sentence in itself. The key to its success will be the staffing of what is effectively a new public service – Taubira’s ambitions for both their numbers and training are ambitious, but it is likely to be cheaper, and the hope is more effective, than building the 23,000 new prison places that would be needed by 2017 should the mandatory minimums continue to hoover up criminals as they do today.

What is not clear is whether all of what she wants will make it into the bill to go before parliament at some point after this year. The Prime Minister has yet to confirm where the competing measures pleaded for by Taubira and her rival, Manuel Valls, Interior Minister, who takes a harder line on sentencing. He did however announce in his speech this morning, closing the Conference, that mandatory minimums would go.

Fundamentally, Christiane Taubira asked a question in her speech yesterday. Those in prison should be helped as much as society can to rejoin society. After all, where else are they going to go?

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