By Alexandria Sage
PARIS (Reuters) - She is the darling of France's progressive left and recites poetry in parliament. He cultivates a tough-guy image and boxes to keep fit.
Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and Interior Minister Manuel Valls are the unlikely "good cop, bad cop" team tasked by Socialist President Francois Hollande with pushing through his latest sensitive reform: overhauling France's teeming prisons.
Criminal justice experts agree something must be done to tackle chronic overcrowding that prompted the Council of Europe rights body to describe conditions at one large French jail as "repugnant".
France's 191 prisons - some of them dating back to the Middle Ages - are among the most run-down in Europe. Rats and cockroaches, blocked drains and piles of rubbish are common.
One in ten inmates injects drugs and HIV and suicide rates are four and six times the national averages respectively.
But reforms to be debated in parliament from Tuesday will still expose Hollande to attacks from right-wing critics just as his ratings have hit record lows, weighed down by his failure to stem rising unemployment.
In February he braved marches by hundreds of thousands of conservative French to push a gay marriage bill through the lower house of parliament. That and the prison reform are vital to keeping his left-wing coalition happy as he carries on with deeply unpopular moves to cut France's high public deficit.
But after communications gaffes by his 10-month-old government on everything from taxes to rescuing industrial sites, Hollande can ill afford a new controversy flaring.
That is where the Valls-Taubira double act comes in.
"We are two sides of the same power," said Valls, who last week underlined his tough credentials by sending out riot police to tackle a crime wave in the southern port city Marseilles.
"Christiane Taubira and I are shaping the same policy: to ensure the security of the French and ensure that decisions taken by the law are efficient," Valls told French television.
PRISON LAST RESORT
The reforms are set to reverse a decade of "zero tolerance" crime policy under Nicolas Sarkozy, who made his name as Jacques Chirac's hardline interior minister before becoming president.
Sarkozy's approach contributed to a 34 percent rise in the prison population to nearly 70,000 over the past decade - five times the rate of growth in the overall population. Inmates often sleep on mats on the floor in overcrowded cells.
On Tuesday, parliament will debate a list of suggested reforms aimed at making prison a "last resort" by using fines, probation, treatment and training for less serious crimes.
Taubira's formal prison reform package, which is expected to include at least parts of those proposals, should be presented to parliament in the spring.
A 2009 justice ministry poll made public late last year found 77 percent of the French believed prison policy was not helping to cut crime - suggesting Hollande can count on substantial public support.
But conservatives and France's far-right National Front see a chance to attack Hollande for being soft on crime.
"This is a message of impunity to France's delinquents," said Eric Ciotti, a lawmaker for the conservative UMP party.
Valls' close association with Taubira is intended to counter such attacks. A regular on the evening news with his high-profile dashes to crime scenes, the 50-year-old is regularly named in polls as France's most-liked politician.
His broad appeal is backed up by Taubira's credibility among left-wing campaigners that was boosted by her unflappability during 110 hours of parliamentary debate on the gay marriage bill.
The 61-year-old native of France's overseas region of Guiana in South America won plaudits from friends and foes alike for a 12-day performance in which she quoted poetry, ridiculed conservative deputies and won a rare standing ovation.
Taubira's popularity lifted by eight points this month, a CSA poll found, the only member of Hollande's team to rise.
ATTACKS FROM THE RIGHT
"We incarcerate if it's necessary," Taubira told a March 7 briefing with foreign media. "We're breaking with the custom of the past decade to incarcerate up, down and sideways."
Taubira brushes off charges of leniency and says she will build new prisons to replace France's most squalid jails - a policy also endorsed by the right.
To further offset attacks from the right, the government has already taken steps to harden anti-terror laws and add video surveillance in crime-ridden areas. Valls has promised that serious youth delinquency will not be tolerated.
The Socialist parliamentary majority means the reforms are likely to get through, though a proposal to end mandatory minimum sentences could get watered down.
But Pierre Tournier, research director at France's CNRS think tank, said Taubira was unlikely to risk pushing on for even more radical reforms - such as lifting the ban on marijuana as urged by some on the left - particularly given the government's falling popularity over the struggling economy.
"The left has a big interest in proposing reforms but without waving red flags," Tournier said.
(Editing by Mark John and Andrew Heavens)
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