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France

Racism, sex abuse and impunity: French police’s toxic legacy in the suburbs

© François Guillot, AFP | Policemen stand next to graffiti reading "fuck the police" in Aulnay-sous-Bois, north of Paris, on February 6, 2017, four days after officers allegedly raped a young man with a baton.

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2017-02-23

A horrific case of alleged rape by police officers has once again highlighted the culture of abuse and impunity that has driven a wedge between law enforcement and youths in France’s deprived suburbs.

Alexandre T. was enjoying some late drinks with his friends when a police car rolled up outside their estate, one of the huge – and often bleak – housing blocks that have turned parts of Paris’s northern banlieues (suburbs) into giant dormitories. When the inebriated young man reportedly insulted the officers, he was bundled into their car and driven to the local police station. Shortly after, he landed in hospital with a 1.5-centimetre-deep anal perforation caused by an expandable police baton. His blood was found on his clothes and in the car. The tip of the police baton bore traces of his DNA.

Sixteen months later, the 28-year-old man told a court in Bobigny, northeast of the French capital, that he was still bleeding from the wound, had trouble sleeping, and had lost his job as a result. The public prosecutor asked for the officer who wielded the baton to be given a six-month suspended jail term, charging him with “aggravated assault”. He dismissed calls for rape charges, arguing that the incident had a “sexual connotation” but not a “sexual character”. The nuance was rejected by the court, which ruled on Monday that the policeman should indeed face “criminal proceedings” for rape.

Paris suburbs rage over 'police rape'

Welcoming the ruling, the victim's lawyer Marie-Cécile Nathan said the prosecutor had been “wrong” to reject rape charges. She suggested the initial leniency was indicative of a wider tendency to hand out “disproportionate sanctions” when dealing with police violence. “Abusive police officers do get punished,” she told FRANCE 24. “The problem is that the punishment hardly ever reflects the gravity of the offence.”

Théo’s ordeal

Alexandre's case had gone largely unnoticed, until a similar incident involving a black man in the nearby town of Aulnay-sous-Bois cast a spotlight on the festering issue of police violence in some of France’s most deprived suburbs, blighted by poverty, unemployment and a dearth of public services. The brutal encounter, on February 2, between a police patrol and the young man, known as Théo L., left the 22-year-old with such severe wounds to the rectum that he required major emergency surgery and was declared incapacitated for 60 days. The incident, part of which was caught on CCTV, sparked outrage and protests – some of them violent – in suburbs across France.

Théo’s ordeal stemmed from a routine ID check, a fraught issue in France’s economically poor and immigrant-rich suburbs, where men of African and North African origin have long complained about being routinely stopped and searched simply because of the colour of their skin. A study conducted by France's National Centre for Scientific Research has shown that blacks are 11.5 times more likely to be checked by police than whites, and those of Arab origin are 7 times more likely. In a landmark case last November, France’s highest court ruled for the first time that police had illegally stopped three men based on racial profiling, setting more specific rules to ensure ID checks are not discriminatory.

Activists say the identity checks frequently bear a sexual component, ranging from heavy-handed frisking to extreme – and much rarer – cases such as Théo’s. On three occasions since 1999, the French state has been found guilty of police sex abuse by the European Court of Human Rights. The abuse included anal rape with a baton, a fractured testicle, and an attempt to force oral sex. In each case the victim was a man of North African origin.

‘Ceremony of degradation’

“Some officers do their job extremely conscientiously, but others behave like thugs,” said Omer Mas Capitolin, a community worker in Paris who helps youths victimised by police. While he conceded that cases like Theo’s and Alexandre’s were rare, Capitolin argued that abuse of a sexual nature was “frequent, even regular”. He pointed to groping and repeated homophobic taunts as part of a “ceremony of degradation” designed to assert the police’s domination, with devastating consequences for youths’ physical and psychological integrity.

“It’s perfectly normal for police officers to pat down individuals they deem suspicious,” he told FRANCE 24. “But it’s not normal for the procedure to include stroking their testicles, passing a finger between their buttocks, or staring at their privates. Remember we’re talking about kids here. They might be as tall as adults, but they’re not mature. They’re uncomfortable with nudity. Some may also be unsure about their sexuality.”

While the abuse is generally aimed at visible minorities, Capitolin said white youths can also be targeted if they come from the "wrong" neighbourhood or stick to the "wrong" crowd. “Some officers might ask them why they ‘hang around with bamboulas [a racist slur to refer to a black man]’, or say, ‘watch out, you might turn into a monkey’,” he said. When a police union representative argued on national television that using the term bamboula was "just about acceptable", days after Théo's assault, critics saw this as evidence of widespread tolerance of racism within the police.

When outrage stifles outrage

Capitolin said many cases of abuse go unreported because victims fear they will be exposed to taunts in their neighbourhoods. “They dread being ‘the one who shows his arse to cops’ or ‘who got a baton up his bum’,” he said. “Besides, who are they supposed to report abuses to? The police? And then end up with an outrage and a conviction?" he added, referring to a "contempt of cop" rule, known as outrage à agent public, that allows for the arrest and prosecution of individuals deemed disrespectful of public authority.

Rights groups working in the banlieues have expressed fears that Théo’s ordeal will ultimately go unpunished, their suspicions heightened by a police inquiry that suggested the 10-centimetre-deep anal penetration had been "accidental". Months earlier, the muddled investigation into the death in police custody of another black youth, 24-year-old Adama Traoré, had already amplified the feeling that the justice system cannot be trusted to protect minority youths and punish abusive officers.

Both cases have stoked fears of a repeat of the huge riots that followed the 2005 deaths of teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré (no relation to Adama), who were electrocuted in a power station while hiding from police in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. The officers in pursuit, who left the scene when a phone call would have sufficed to cut the voltage and save the two boys, were cleared of wrongdoing.

"Théo and Adama remind us of why Zyed and Bouna were running," says this poster, referring to the teenagers' death while running away from police in 2005. © Florence Richard

Sophie Body-Gendrot, a researcher at the Centre for Sociological Studies on Penal Institutions (CESDIP) who has written extensively about the 2005 riots and policing the suburbs, said the odds tended to be stacked in favour of the police when disputes made it to court. “It is hard to catch officers at fault, and their accounts are smoothened by lawyers and their hierarchy,” she told FRANCE 24. “In contrast, minority youths are generally reluctant to speak to institutions they don’t trust. And when they do come out, they are often intimidated, confused and incoherent.”

‘Them and us’

A member of the National Police Complaints Authority for five years, Body-Gendrot said the “rotten apples” on display in the worst cases of abuse were not representative of the institution as a whole. “Most officers are very professional,” she noted, adding that the antagonism with youths in sensitive suburbs meant police patrols were “constantly being targeted and provoked”.

With France’s security forces under exceptional stress due to the threat of terrorism, police unions have reacted angrily to the stinging criticism elicited by Théo’s alleged rape. Replying to an op-ed signed by several artists in left-wing daily Libération, the Unité SGP union wrote on its website: “Do you know that dozens of police officers are attacked and injured each day? Do you know that hundreds of officers receive insults and threats each day? Do you know that hundreds of officers cannot live and work in the same neighbourhood because of the risk for their families, their children?”

'We can't shake the stigma attached to our skin'

Body-Gendrot said the antagonism between police and minority groups in deprived areas reflected a structural reluctance to engage with local communities. “New recruits don’t join the police in order to give free rein to racist or violent impulses,” she said. “It is once they are inside the institution that a ‘them and us’ mentality develops. Officers feel – often wrongly – that they are despised by residents, magistrates and the media. Sometimes they snap, verbally or physically; particularly when they operate in small units, hidden from the public eye.”

The establishment of community policing, at the turn of the century, marked a short-lived attempt to bridge the gulf with residents of the banlieues. But the so-called police de proximité (proximity police) jarred with the tough “law and order” rhetoric of conservative firebrand Nicolas Sarkozy, who disbanded the unit after becoming France’s interior minister in 2002. “You’re not a social worker,” Sarkozy famously told an officer who had helped organise a football tournament for youths in a poor suburb of Toulouse. Most unions were happy to see the programme ended. “Police unions hated the idea of being accountable to the local community,” said Body-Gendrot. As a result, “community policing was never really given a chance to prove its worth".

Politicians’ betrayal

Ever since, left-wing politicians have regularly floated the idea of reintroducing some form of police de proximité. But President François Hollande’s Socialist government made no such attempt. Instead, to the dismay of minority youths singled out by police, Hollande’s administration reneged on a campaign promise to introduce a form of written receipt for all identity checks carried out by officers – a measure long advocated by campaigners against racial profiling.

“The receipts would have protected our dignity and our essential right to move freely in the public space, without being constantly harassed,” said Capitolin, the community worker, for whom Hollande’s U-turn explained why many in the banlieues have “no faith in politicians”. Another of the president's broken promises, to give foreign nationals the right to vote in local elections, was seen as further evidence of politicians' neglect of the immigrant-rich suburbs.

Nor is the prospect of national elections in two months raising hopes for change. Body-Gendrot said she was doubtful governments would, in the near future, take concrete steps to address the problem of policing the suburbs, such as improving police training and supervision, and ensuring seasoned officers are deployed where they are most needed. “The strength of police unions means junior officers will continue to be deployed to sensitive neighbourhoods they are unfamiliar with,” she said. “Sadly, the banlieues are simply not a key electoral issue.”

Date created : 2017-02-23

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