On October 10, Christiane Taubira, France’s former Minister of Justice, visited International House for a lecture entitled “Justice in the Service of Equality.” Taubira has over two decades of experience in French politics. From 1993 to 2007, she represented the French Overseas Department of French Guiana in France’s National Assembly, where she successfully fought for a 2001 law recognizing the slave trade as a crime against humanity. In May 2012, French President François Hollande named her Minister of Justice. In this role, Taubira was responsible for coordinating France’s response to the January 7, 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, and the November 13, 2015 Paris terror attacks. In January 2016, she resigned to protest Hollande’s proposal for a law that would have stripped dual citizens convicted of terrorism of their French citizenship, a proposal that he later abandoned.
This lecture was co-sponsored by the Global Voices Lecture Series; the Institute of Politics; the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture; the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality; the Consulate of France in Chicago; the UChicago French Club; the Franke Institute for the Humanities; and the Alliance Française of Chicago.
The Gate: You started your political career by representing French Guiana in Parliament. How is representing French Guiana different from representing a part of mainland France?
Taubira: First of all, I don't have a political career. I have political engagements. It's very important for me to make the distinction. Before running in elections, I worked in the public and private sectors. That was the first period of my career. I didn't decide [to enter politics], really, but so many people asked me to run for legislative elections in order to be an MP. When I decided to say yes, for me, it was an engagement. I stopped my professional career and I decided to take care of people, to devote my energy, my thoughts, my strengths, my time to people, and mainly to vulnerable people.
So yes, it's very different, because between French Guiana and Paris there are ten thousand kilometers. When I was elected in French Guiana, I was supposed to work in Paris, in the French National Assembly in Paris. Each time, I had to take a plane to fly to Paris, ten thousand kilometers to go to work. You can't do that every morning. I did it every week. It's different for that.
It's different too because it's a different society. It has both the same history and different histories. The same history because Guiana is a French overseas department due to colonization, so it's the same, because even if there was domination, there is a link, a relation. The second reason why it's different is because the Guianese human community is very diverse. You can see it every time. We are used to speaking and living and going to school and working with all kinds of different people.
In France, it’s more difficult. As Guiana is a French department, some decisions depend on the French government, and often the French government, the ministers, do not know Guiana, and they don't understand when you talk about aboriginal people and their needs. Sometimes, they’ve watched movies about Guiana, but they don't know exactly what it is like in real life. When you speak about so many children coming from other countries who have to go to school in Guiana, they don't understand that. When you explain that we have to take care of the forest, of biodiversity, and protect fishing, they don't understand. And what about single-parent families? So there are sociological issues, geographical issues, political issues, social issues, cultural issues that they don't understand. So when you are an MP from there, you have to explain and explain and explain. I'm a very passionate person, so it gets on my nerves, and I explain to them.
Gate: When you were representing French Guiana, you fought for and passed a law declaring the slave trade a crime against humanity. Fifteen years later, do you think France needs to do more to atone for slavery and its legacy?
Taubira: Yes, I do believe that there is more to do—what some people call “reparations.” I have two concerns about reparations. First of all, this crime can't be repaid. It's quite impossible. Second, reparations for me concern the consequences of the crime.
Among the consequences of the crime, there is, today, racism, the way people think about black people. For example, I was the Keeper of the Seals, a member of the French government, a minister, and some French people called me a monkey. Some were condemned by the jurisdiction. They called me a monkey! They said to me, "Go back to your tree." It was very, very, violent.
Some people think that they are superior just because of the color of their skin. My life is a lot more beautiful than theirs; I know a lot of things they don't know. I did a lot of things they will never do, and yet they just feel that they can insult me due to the color of my skin. They can insult me, whatever. But I took care of so many different people, including so many people like them, because people are people. Human beings are my brothers and sisters, and I'm very happy when they're different, because for me, it's an opportunity to know different things.
Gate: In both France and the United States, leading presidential candidates are running for office on platforms of racism and xenophobia. Do you think liberals in these two countries can reverse the prejudices that Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen have set in motion?
Taubira: They have to do it. It's very dangerous; what Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and so many people in Europe are doing is very dangerous. What makes me sad is that Donald Trump spoke so loudly for such a long period of time. Even if he's not elected, it's my business, even though I am not an American citizen. It's my business if someone like Donald Trump is the head of one of the big countries. Even if he's doesn’t get elected, he’s been playing in the mud, and he brought so many ugly things up to the surface. These ugly things will keep working below the soil, and that's very sad and very dangerous.
And I do believe that the Republican Party has responsibility because they were not vigilant enough. They let the phenomenon increase, and now it's developed—now it's too late. Everybody who was attentive at the beginning of the campaign knew who this guy was. It's easy to understand quickly who he is, and it's now, only one year later, that the Republicans say, "This guy, we can't stand that, we can't support him, we can't allow him to keep saying things he says." We all knew that from the beginning. So, it's sad and dangerous. We all have to fight, and the Republicans have to take their part.
Gate: You were the French Minister of Justice when the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened. Can you describe that day? What were your top priorities when you heard about the attack?
Taubira: First of all, it felt quite incredible for me. Immediately, I went to Charlie Hebdo, since I am Keeper of Seals, minister of justice, so I had to organize things. I had to organize the inquiry, because I was responsible for the judicial inquiry. I had to take care of victims. When I left my position as minister of justice, the prime minister [Manuel Valls] took the responsibility for the victims, so the new minister of justice did not have to take care of the victims. But I had to. So my responsibilities were organizing how to receive the people who were wounded and their families, taking care of the inquiry, and cooperating with other countries in order to have information on the fight against terrorists.
I had to take care of the victims—it was the first time for everyone in France, so no one knew how to do that. Then I called some of the families of victims and I spoke with them. They were not used to having a minister calling them, so they spoke frankly to me. Sometimes, it was very hard, because I was on the phone for one hour, an hour and a half, with a person who was crying, and I was crying too, and I was trying to give them courage. I understood what was wrong for these people.
It was very important for each of [these family members] to speak every time to the same person. We used to have a system, and when the families of the victim called, they would have a different contact. If you were a victim of a terrorist attack, we would give you a phone number that you could call. It's free. When you call, one day, you could speak to Marcel, and tomorrow, you could speak to another person. I stopped that. I said, “The person must have a reference, someone who knows their situation.” I decided to reorganize all of that, and to find more money, more budget, in order to accommodate the victims.
We worked for months and months, and we reorganized all these things, and I published a decree that reorganized the whole system of receiving and supporting the victims. I published that on November 12. On November 13, we had the Bataclan attack. It was the day after. So the system was quite new. So we had to be very, very efficient. And we succeeded. All of these people were so wonderful. Everyone did their best. We did it, and I found a lot of money, so we were able to help people very, very, fast. We paid for all the funerals. We paid indemnities. And it was very important, because it was such a shock for everyone. We were not used to taking care of 130 bodies. Because I didn't want the families to wait too long, I asked the services, "Please, when the autopsy is not indispensible, don't do it, and give back the bodies as quick as possible." I had to work with the prosecutor, because according to the law, in case of this kind of crime, autopsy is mandatory, so we had to organize all this in order not to make an autopsy for each victim.
Gate: Is there anything else you were hoping to say during your event this evening?
Taubira: [slams the table] Just trust the youth. Of my country, of your country, of the world. I trust you [laughs].
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