Paris suburbs rage over alleged police assault: ‘I’m disgusted by my country’
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Saturday’s violent protest over an alleged rape by police officers has highlighted the chasm between law enforcement and residents of Paris’s run-down suburbs, where many feel they are treated like second-class citizens.
In what has become an all too familiar pattern, the mostly peaceful rally in the northeastern suburb of Bobigny descended into violence after small groups of protesters hurled projectiles at riot police and set several vehicles on fire.
Police responded by firing tear gas and arresting 37 people. Several bus stops and shop windows were smashed and a little girl was rescued from a burning car by a 16-year-old demonstrator, who was heralded as a hero on social media.
The chaos was precisely what student Issa Bidard, one of the rally’s organisers, had been hoping to avoid.
Shortly before the outbreak of violence, Bidard had urged the crowd to show French authorities “our real face, that we are educated, intelligent – that we are not savages”.
His plea followed several nights of clashes in the French capital’s restive outskirts, triggered by a brutal encounter between police and a 22-year-old black man known as Théo, who was allegedly beaten and anally penetrated with a police truncheon.
The youth worker suffered such severe injuries to his rectum that he needed major emergency surgery and remains in hospital. Three officers involved in the incident have been charged with aggravated assault and a fourth is being investigated for rape.
On Saturday, the demonstrators held placards reading “police rape” and “police kill innocents” as they rallied outside the Bobigny courthouse. The crowd chanted “justice for Théo” and “justice for Adama”, referring to 24-year-old black man Adama Traore, who died while in police custody in another Paris suburb last July.
Traore’s death, and the perceived miscarriage of justice that followed when police were initially cleared of wrongdoing, reignited the simmering anger in France’s most deprived suburbs, where relations between police and youths of immigrant origin have long been toxic.
It stoked fears of a repeat of the huge riots that followed the 2005 deaths of teenagers Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore (no relation to Adama), who were electrocuted in a power station while hiding from police in the suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.
Many in Bobigny feared Théo’s ordeal would also go unpunished, their suspicions heightened by a police investigation that suggested the 10-centimetre-deep penetration had been "accidental".
“Theo’s case is just the tip of the iceberg,” said a protester in his 30s, who declined to give his name. “Fortunately this time the victim is alive. There is video footage and medical evidence. He was lynched.”
The protester added: “We want a fair justice system, that isn’t blind [to our plight]. We want police chiefs to recognise what happened and punish the officer.”
Youssef Sayah, a father of two from Théo’s hometown of Aulnay-sous-Bois, neighbouring Bobigny, said he attended the rally to “support Theo and all those who suffer from injustice”.
Sayah chairs a “citizen council” in his neighbourhood, which aims to build bridges between the authorities and the local population, “so that people who never get a hearing can get their message across.”
He said: “What police did [to Théo] is not right. We don’t live in lawless areas, but in areas where we are not equal before the law.”
‘What kind of justice is this?’
Jamila, who came from nearby Saint-Denis to attend the rally, said she was spurred into action after her severely disabled son was stopped by police in the hall of their building. “I found him in a state of total panic,” she recalled, offering her “unconditional support” to the protest movement against police brutality.
Earlier this week, Jamila attended a court hearing for youths who were arrested in Aulnay-sous-Bois during the violent protests that followed Théo’s brutal arrest. She suggested the swift sentencing to jail of two youths who were found guilty of ambushing police was evidence of double standards.
“Ministers steal millions and nothing happens, but these youths, some of whom are studying in university, are sent to jail – this is not normal,” she fumed. “Police chiefs want results, they put pressure on officers, and we suffer the consequences,” she added.
Like Jamila, none of the protesters who spoke to FRANCE 24 said they expected much from France’s presidential election, which is only ten weeks away. But the name of one candidate – embattled conservative nominee François Fillon – came up more than once.
“Fillon steals a million euros from us taxpayers and he is free, whereas kids from our estates are sentenced for much less – what kind of justice is this?” lamented Fatima, from nearby La Courneuve, referring to the festering scandal involving allegations Fillon’s wife and children were paid generous salaries from public funds in return for doing very little work.
“I’m disgusted by my country,” she added. “Nobody does anything to change this.”