France's Christiane Taubira Has Made Her Mark

Thursday, April 25, 2013

France's legalization of same-sex marriage on April 23 may not have been possible without her courage and eloquence. "A star is born," say some media, and her style and courage deserve all the admiration she has won.

France's Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira.
France's Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira.

Credit: Parti socialiste on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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(WOMENSENEWS)--"A star is born," said some French media of Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who unleashed all her eloquence and confidence in support of the bill that became law in France on April 23 to legalize same-sex marriage in the face of violence, protest and fear.

If we had begun to doubt that sheer words of courage can sow change and reap common good, Taubira erases all questions. Her words flow with a rare combination of authority and warmth. Her fiery but elegant assurance transformed the debate in France on same-sex marriage from a possibly doomed legislative tug-of-war to a tableau of history, poetry and success.

A star? Peut-etre.

But surely, at minimum, another sign of women transforming the cliches of politics to win a greater goal.

The debate over same-sex marriage in France had turned surprisingly violent, with outright bloody battles between proponents and opponents on the streets of Paris.

As the French Parliament debated a bill to allow same-sex marriage through the winter and into spring, it seemed France had suddenly become more homophobic than the United States.

But then attention shifted to Madame la Ministre, at commanding ease in the limelight and photogenic in her brightly colored silk jackets, who began a series of speeches in the French legislature intended to educate the general population and her colleagues in government that the right to a civil and secular same-sex marriage, as the history of rights and justice goes, was not so alien as might be assumed.

Reaching Into History

Born in French Guiana, Taubira has represented her homeland in the French Parliament, as well as the European Parliament, and she was fully at home as she reached into the corners of French history to remind her colleagues that marriage had long been used as a tool for denying rights to groups the establishment wished to reject.

After all, she told legislators, French law had once denied Jews and Protestants as a whole group the right to marry, not to mention non-believing Catholics.

That Edict of Nantes in 1685, which revoked the former Edict of Tolerance, even--for a while--excluded actors from marrying, Toubira pointed out.

Civil marriage, she said, was established precisely so that religious persecution and prejudice against certain groups could be rendered moot. She saw marriage rights for same-sex couples as a logical extension of the secularization of France intended to guarantee human rights to all.

Contradicted from the floor, still she continued, pointing out the establishment of laws in the past that today seem absurd--such as that as recently as 1970, women in France needed the permission of their husbands to open a bank account. "Off topic," shouted an opponent of marriage equality.

Toubira ignored the intrusion and went on, recalling also that illegitimate children in France did not enjoy full rights under the law until 1972.

The debate on same-sex marriage continued for several months, with Taubira throwing the weight of her office behind the bill.

Striking a Chord

When at last the case was won and the bill had also passed the French Senate, on April 12, she spoke again. She took pains to use the heights of the French language to politely congratulate her adversaries on their dedication, as well as her allies for holding their ground, including on the right of same-sex couples to adopt children.

After all, she said, "the children you have protected with this vote are children like any other, children who exist . . . who are in these families now . . . who laugh and cry and skin their knees, children who detest broccoli, who drive us crazy."

Taubira knows how to touch the chords of ordinary life, and the broccoli remark definitely broke the tension and won her some laughs.

The bill passed perhaps in a large part because of her way of speaking about it, and the calming context she provided in a nation unnerved by economic uncertainty and still tethered to an unquiet history.

Then, knowing how France remains, despite it all, a cultural beacon for the world, Taubira soared high to conclude, transforming the metal of politics into the honey of poetry. Quoting the Nobel poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who had himself spent much time in France, she assured the legislators they could be proud of the history they had made.

"With your vote," she declared, "you have taken us to that place described by the great Tagore, where 'the head is held high . . . where knowledge is free . . . and where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit'."

Such a minister could well have a shot at being prime minister one day.



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