Argument

I Resign, Therefore I Am

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira didn’t just quit -- she tweeted goodbye, published a 94-page philosophical pamphlet, and dropped the mic on France’s rightward lurch.

Former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira speaks to the media in New York on January 29, 2016. 
Taubira quit in protest over the government's efforts to strip convicted French-born terrorists of their citizenship if they have a second nationality. Taubira, popular among the ruling Socialists of President Francois Hollande but a target of criticism from right-wing politicians, tweeted: "Sometimes to resist means staying, sometimes resisting means leaving." / AFP / Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira speaks to the media in New York on January 29, 2016. Taubira quit in protest over the government's efforts to strip convicted French-born terrorists of their citizenship if they have a second nationality. Taubira, popular among the ruling Socialists of President Francois Hollande but a target of criticism from right-wing politicians, tweeted: "Sometimes to resist means staying, sometimes resisting means leaving." / AFP / Jewel Samad (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

“Sometimes resistance means staying, sometimes resistance means leaving. Fidelity to oneself, to all of us. The last word goes to ethics and the law.”

Rarely has the resignation of an important political figure been as lyrical as Christiane Taubira’s tweeted announcement last week that she was quitting her post as France’s justice minister. Rarer still is when that resignation is followed — in a matter of days — by the publication of a book, penned by the official while still in office, to explain her reasons. This week Taubira released Murmures à la jeunesse, or Whispers to the Young, a 94-page pamphlet in which she tries to square the circle of declaring her admiration of President François Hollande, all the while damning his decision to seek an amendment to the constitution so that convicted terrorists with dual nationality can be stripped of their French citizenship.

The story behind the pamphlet’s publication has proved as sensational as the resignation itself. Much like the subversive writings of Enlightenment figures like Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Denis Diderot, Taubira had her pamphlet published in a foreign country — for the philosophers, the Netherlands was the usual go-to, but Taubira turned to Spain — and delivered to France in unidentified cartons. (The difference, of course, is that the philosophers were avoiding a spell in the Bastille, while Taubira was avoiding embarrassing questions about her continued presence in a government she was about to lambaste.) The one person outside her immediate circle aware of the book was President Hollande, who was given a copy to read shortly before her resignation was made public. With these dramatic gestures, Taubira joined the long line of French officials who, declaring themselves unable to stand by and watch any longer, have fallen on their swords in the name of conscience.

Resignations for reasons of principle do exist in the United States, of course: Names that come to mind are William Jennings Bryan, who stepped down as secretary of state in 1915 over Woodrow Wilson’s hard line against Germany following the Lusitania’s sinking; Elliot Richardson, who left as Richard Nixon’s attorney general when he refused to fire the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox; and Cyrus Vance, who quit Foggy Bottom when Jimmy Carter refused to heed his warnings against a rescue mission to Iran.

But in the United States, we tend to remember less the rare resignations than the resignations manqué — those who do not resign, but instead resign themselves, as did Colin Powell in 2003, to policies they doubt or disagree with. And when compared to France, Dean Acheson’s famous observation about principled resignees — they form, he declared, “the most exclusive club in America” — seems all the truer.

The French club is not only much larger, but includes some of the most illustrious names in French politics and teems with recidivists who have made a habit of such noble acts. Among the charter members is Charles de Gaulle, who resigned twice. The first time, it was from his position as head of France’s Provisional Government in 1946, when he was frustrated by the resistance to his efforts to shape a postwar constitution with a powerful executive branch; the second was when he ended his political career the way he began it two decades before: by resigning as president in 1969 after the country voted down a referendum on decentralization, to which he tied his political fortunes.

Not to be outdone, his political adversary Pierre Mendès-France also resigned twice: first as economy minister in 1945, when his boss — none other than Charles de Gaulle — rejected the monetary controls that Mendès-France argued (rightly, as it turned out) were necessary to stem France’s spiraling inflation, and second, in 1956, to protest Prime Minister Guy Mollet’s refusal to seek a negotiated end to the Algerian war of independence. Other instances of statesmen announcing “au revoir” as a matter of conscience: In 1962, Maurice Schumann, a founder of the European Union, quit the government when de Gaulle dismissed the ideal of an integrated Europe; more recently, scarcely more than a year ago, two of Taubira’s former colleagues blazed the trail for her, after Prime Minister Manuel Valls fired his economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg, for resisting efforts to liberalize the economy. The minister of education, Benoît Hamon, and minister of culture, Aurélie Filippetti — both of whom are leaders of the left wing of the Socialists — also quit in protest.

The tradition of the resignation grows out of French politicians’ sense of themselves as public intellectuals of a sort, said Antoine Perraud, editor at the online news and investigative journal Mediapart. “It is as if French politicians were in touch with their inner Voltaire or Émile Zola,” he told me. Both men championed a certain idea of the intellectual, a public figure who serves as the nation’s guardian of its unchanging values and truths. Not surprisingly, Taubira casts herself as the latest in this exceptional lineage.

But Perraud also suspects something more systemic at work: The French penchant for principled departure might also serve as a “kind of safety valve for the republican monarchy” that de Gaulle shaped with the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, he said. Given the power de Gaulle invested in the presidency, as well as the scorn he expressed for political parties, resignation on matters of policy became one of the few paths of political dissension a tradition that has continued to this day.

Indeed, as Hollande immediately understood, Taubira’s whisperings were aimed less at France’s youth than at her former bosses. The title of her book alludes to Hollande’s invocation, in his speech last November, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, of “the youth of France” as a particular concern. Not coincidentally, this was the same speech in which he announced the plans to strip the French citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorism that set Taubira on her course toward self-sacrifice. Citing the suicidal aims of terrorists, Taubira, in Murmures, mocks the preventive value of such a threat: “What effect could stripping them of their French nationality have on them? They do not die as French citizens or bi-nationals; they die in bloody pieces.”

The only consequence of the proposed law, slated to be voted on next week, Taubira warns, will be to lend credibility to the arguments of the aspiring presidential candidates on France’s right and far-right. Both former President Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the conservative Les Républicains, and Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front, have long sought such a law. While Sarkozy and Le Pen make their case on national security grounds, it also dovetails with their explicitly anti-immigration and implicitly anti-Muslim rhetoric. For this reason, Taubira insists that Hollande’s tactical move is not only an ethical blunder, but a tactical one: The law will validate what she calls the “paranoid and conspiratorial” convictions of those who “obsess over national identity and fixate on policies of exclusion and expulsion.”

The pamphlet is, as well, a thinly veiled rejoinder to Valls, with whom Taubira was frequently at odds during her tenure in office, most notably over the prime minister’s efforts to expand the state’s capacity for intelligence gathering and the government’s perceived “droitisation,” or rightward lurch, on matters of security and immigration. Along with the long list of provocations to the Socialist old guard, Valls also alarmed France’s intellectual class a few weeks ago when, dismissing efforts to plumb the motivations of young terrorists, he warned: “to explain jihadism is to want to excuse.” Although ostensibly writing about the Islamic State’s recruitment efforts, Taubira also had Valls in mind when she declared in her pamphlet, “In the face of threats, we must refuse to surrender intellectually.” In effect, Taubira sought to remind Valls that to explain is to begin to find solutions.

Nevertheless, one might well ask, as Valls did, if to resign is to resist — or to retreat. For all the strength of their principles, few of France’s political resignees succeeded in changing the course of their government, much less the course of history. In his letter to Mollet, Mendès-France portrayed his resignation as an “anguished appeal,” one he hoped would move the “government to make the necessary decisions, however difficult they may be.” He no more succeeded in that aim, however, than did Taubira, who told Le Monde earlier this week that she had delayed her own resignation in the hope that Hollande would reconsider his decision. In fact, in the days since she announced her decision, Taubira’s actions have been cast in a somewhat less attractive light. She remained in office, after all, for more than a month after Valls announced that the proposed law would be put to a parliamentary vote. Moreover, Taubira spent part of that time writing a pamphlet to justify her resignation. While she told Le Monde that it was no one’s business how she spent her time, a friend at the newspaper told me that the entire affair had left him feeling disgusted and cynical.

This reaction, shared by several other commentators, is understandable, but severe. Saints are — fortunately — rare in politics. Besides, Taubira ultimately acted on the golden rule of ministerial responsibility, expressed by the crusty French republican icon Jean-Pierre Chevènement: “A cabinet minister shuts up or steps down.” (Chevènement happens to hold the hat trick: Incapable of shutting up, he has stepped down from three different governments.)

And her decision, regardless of its reasons, underscores the moral and political dilemma in which Hollande has placed his party. Over the last several days, new contortions have been added to the conundrum. Earlier this week, a number of Socialists began arguing that, in order to remove the stigma from those who hold dual citizenship, the proposed constitutional change should be extended to all French citizens, only to backtrack this week and return to the original proposal, reflecting Valls’s earlier warning that France “cannot create stateless persons.” And yet, upon opening Friday’s debate on the proposed bill in the National Assembly, Valls performed a perfect pirouette, announcing to general stupor and surprise that the government seeks precisely that — a law on denationalization that would apply to all convicted French terrorists.

Taubira has not publicly spoken about this latest twist, but she hardly needs to. In her pamphlet, Taubira insists that a “nation must find a way to deal with its citizens. What would the world become if each country expelled those of its citizens it considered undesirable?” Next week’s vote will reveal whether France’s political class has an answer for Taubira’s question — which she is no longer murmuring, but shouting from the rooftops.

Photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

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