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Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Why the resignation of a justice minister strikes at the very heart of French values

Christiane Taubira announced her resignation as France’s minister for justice on January 27, following what she described as a “major political disagreement” with her ministerial colleagues over terrorism legislation.

It’s early days, but it seems as though Taubira made the decision on a point of principle relating to the treatment of people convicted of terrorism. The government plans to strip these people of French citizenship if they hold dual nationality; Taubira stood vehemently opposed.

A favourite target of French racists and hard-right-wingers, Taubira is well known for taking principled stands against threats to cherished Republican values.

She was elected to the French parliament in 1993 to represent French Guiana – where she was born. Ever since, her career has been characterised by successive attempts to hold the Republic to account.

France’s anti-racist discourse – typified by its refusal to attribute ethnic categories to citizens – was for Taubira hypocritical so long as its representatives remained reluctant to confront the structural legacies of French imperialism. In the eyes of the French state, people are classified either as “French nationals” or “foreigners”. Statistics gathered on the educational achievement of children, for example, or on quality of housing, are never officially correlated with the ethnic background of those studied. Hence the state cannot officially map how inequalities might correlate with ethnicity.

Taubira justified her recent act of dissent by claiming that proposals to cancel the French nationality of those convicted of terrorist-related offences would not be effective anyway. But she has also spoken powerfully of the “droit du sol” as an inviolable principle. For Taubira, those born on French soil have fundamental rights to access French citizenship, whatever their alleged crimes.

This has lead to her being applauded by some for using her judgement, but criticised by others for taking a “soft” stance on terrorism. Her inclusive and humanistic Republicanism has been the making of her political reputation but also, it seems, her undoing as a minister.

Taubira’s action corresponds with her position as both outsider and insider in the French parliament. She is affiliated with the governing Socialist Party but has also been associated with the radical left and continues to represent Walwari, the Guiana-based party she helped create.

This free radical is now to be replaced by Jean-Jacques Urvoas, said to be a friend of prime minister Manuel Valls. It perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that Valls, a centre-right “socialist” who talks tough on border control and on terrorism, has chosen someone less outspoken (or at least less practised at resisting) to take on Taubira’s portfolio.

Racist abuse

Urvoas will in any case not need to undergo the distracting business of managing racist and misogynist abuse. As the ex-Garde des Sceaux cycled away from the ministry, her supporters applauded her, while the French right wing celebrated her departure.

Taubira’s legitimacy as a representative of the French people has repeatedly been brought into question. Yet she is one of a succession of people from French Guiana who have played pivotal roles at the heart of government by advocating similar versions of Republicanism.

A fond farewell. Reuters/Christian Hartmann

In 1940, Félix Éboué the French Guiana-born grandson of slaves, then colonial governor of Chad, turned the course of World War II in the Allies’ favour by drumming up support for the Free French rather than for the Vichy government. His near-contemporary Gaston Monnerville, of the Radical Party, was a crucial member of France’s transitional and post-war governments. In 1962, Monnerville publicly opposed President de Gaulle and Prime Minister Pompidou on a constitutional matter (sound familiar?). Still, he remained president of the French Senate until 1968.

Along with their African-American roots, Éboué, Monnerville and Taubira have shared a certain willingness to dissent in the name of “Republican values”. This, it is fair to surmise, is not unrelated to the ways in which they all embodied and understood the diversity and complexity of imperial and postcolonial France.

French Guiana, which borders Suriname and Brazil, has been a fully-integrated department of France since 1946. In legal terms, it is essentially no different to the Dordogne or the Vendée. The Guyanais are French citizens who use the euro and attend the lycée. Yet, in this corner of Amazonia, French nationals of African, East Asian, Maroon and/or native American descent rub shoulders with migrants and refugees from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, St Lucia, Colombia, China, Brazil, Suriname and indeed Paris. Many in French Guiana, unsurprisingly, hold dual nationality. Although there is no terrorism there, there is plenty of crime; the proposal to strip nationality from certain convicted criminals could set a precedent which might affect people in Taubira’s constituency more than others.

Marine Le Pen says that Taubira’s resignation is “good news for France”. But Guiana is France, too. And so France, in a sense, is also Guiana. And whose France is represented now, in François Hollande’s cabinet?

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