Guyana-born Christiane Taubira, who served as justice minister since President François Hollande entered office in 2012, was a symbol for the left wing of the Socialist party and probably best known for bringing in the legalisation of gay marriage in 2013.
But the security clampdown in the wake of last year’s extremist attacks Paris brought growing divergences with Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, namely over their proposals to revoke citizenship of convicted of terrorists.
“I am leaving the government over a major political disagreement,” Taubira said in her resignation speech that came after a post on Twitter reading “sometimes to resist means staying, sometimes to resist means leaving.”
Taubira’s departure leaves few remaining dissenting voices in the Socialist government, after left-leaning ministers Aurélie Filippetti, Benoît Hamon and Arnaud Montebourg all resigned in 2014.
“The government will be weaker without Christiane Taubira,” says Socialist MP Alexis Bachelay. “She had more freedom than many other members of the government, because she has a strong personality, great conviction and ability to speak with strong words.”
Taubira’s departure affects both government and opposition
For some observers of French political life, the biggest surprise was that Taubira held her post for so long.
“She was breaking government solidarity before she was side-lined on the issue of the terrorist attacks in France, and especially over the last few weeks when she reiterated her opposition to the constitutional reform,” says Paul Vallet, associate fellow with the Centre for Security Policy in Geneva.
“Now, her decision to go of her own accord is also a blow to the government, because they did not have the authority to ask them to leave by themselves.”
Prominent figures in the opposition party Les Républicains as well as the far-right Front National rejoiced at news of Taubira’s departure, even if it does not necessarily play in their favour as they eye up next year’s presidential election campaign.
“Taubira was probably the most loathed figure by the opposition,” says Vallet, adding that the opposition has also lost one of its prime targets for criticism. “They not only denounced her constant opposition to the anti-terrorist legislation, but also her position on security and justice policy as well.”
French government to pursue anti-terror measures
Taubira’s departure gives the executive greater flexibility to push its latest package of anti-terror measures aimed at confronting the hundreds of French citizens who have gone to fight alongside the Islamic State armed group in Syria and Iraq and, as in the case of last November’s deadly attacks in Paris, returned to commit attacks in France.
“Removing French nationality from those who blindly kill other French in the name of an ideology of terror is a strong symbolic act against those who have excluded themselves from the national community," Valls said upon proposing the reform.
Taubira was among many in the Socialist Party who see the proposal as a betrayal of the party’s values.
“It’s not an efficient idea, it’s not a good way to fight terrorism, and I suppose this is the main reason” for Taubira’s departure, Bachelay says.
The justice portfolio went to Socialist MP Jean-Jacques Urvoas, who has a long track record of crafting security legislation on the parliamentary laws commission, notably a controversial intelligence-gathering law approved last year.
“He’s very competent and he’s a good person to succeed Taubira, but he’s also very close to Valls,” says Bachelay. “He would be less independent, not as free as Taubira was.”
Critics see Urvoas’s appointment as a symptom of the government’s growing concerns for security and consolidating its authority.
“When Ms. Taubira gives a speech, she quotes the great poets of our culture to express her appreciation of our values, while Mr. Urvoas is a kind of pragmatic bureaucrat standing on the side of police,” says Philippe Aigrain, co-founder of civil liberties group La Quadrature du Net.
“It’s almost a kind of internal coup, where the security services and the people who promote their extended role take over the Ministry of Justice.”
Hours after Taubira’s resignation, Valls presented MPs with the latest version of the proposed constitutional reform, which maintains the proposal to revoke French nationality from convicted terrorists but removes reference to dual citizens.
MPs begin debating the proposal on 5 February.