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As George Floyd outrage spreads, France confronts its own demons

A protester wears a protective mask reading "I can't breathe" at a rally in Paris on June 2, 2020.
A protester wears a protective mask reading "I can't breathe" at a rally in Paris on June 2, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS

The global outrage triggered by George Floyd’s killing in the US has reignited a debate about policing in France’s ethnically diverse suburbs, where protesters say it is time the country wakes up to its own unspoken legacy of abuse and impunity.

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In years of rallying against racism and police brutality, Loom had never seen such a crowd before. All around him, flooding the area around the Paris courthouse, a sea of protesters rippled with anger and indignation, youthful faces covered in masks.

“What happened in the US happens here too, it’s the same oppression and injustice,” said the 38-year-old music producer, referring to the George Floyd killing that has sparked massive protests in the US and beyond. 

He added: “The difference is that France pretends it doesn’t happen.”

Defying police orders, some 20,000 people gathered outside the French capital’s tribunal on Tuesday evening to protest against racism and impunity. Demonstrators voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter protests and demanded justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who, like Floyd, died while in police custody in the Paris suburbs in 2016. 

“This concerns all of us,” said Loom, who goes by the name he has chosen for his music company. “We want justice for the victims of police brutality and we want racism to be punished wherever it takes pace — all racisms, not just a select few.”

Huge crowds converged on the Paris courthouse calling for an end to police violence and impunity.
Huge crowds converged on the Paris courthouse calling for an end to police violence and impunity. © Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters

While expressing pride in the huge turnout, Loom was disappointed by the lack of journalists at the event, with foreign correspondents appearing to outnumber the French.

“We’re always stigmatised as violent troublemakers, but where’s the press to report on this peaceful crowd?” he asked. “Trust me, they’ll only appear if scuffles break out.”

‘I can’t breathe’

Minor clashes did break out later in the night, duly capturing much of the media’s attention. The government voiced its outrage, warning that “violence has no place in democracy”. But those words will ring hollow to the youths from immigrant-rich suburbs who experience violence on an ordinary basis — and whose voices have so little space in French democracy.

Relations between police and residents have long been a fraught issue in France’s ethnically diverse suburbs, where men of African and North African origin complain about being routinely stopped and searched simply because of the colour of their skin.

A 2009 study by France's National Centre for Scientific Research showed that blacks were 11.5 times more likely to be checked by police than whites, and those of Arab origin seven times more likely. In a depressing cycle of violence and resentment, such routine checks can lead to violent altercations and eventually riots, an explosive cocktail that threatened to materialise during the country’s coronavirus lockdown when a policing incident triggered several nights of unrest in the French capital’s deprived suburbs, known as the banlieue.

The chilling video of Floyd’s killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis has evoked comparisons with the case of 24-year-old Adama Traoré, whose death while in police custody in July 2016 sparked days of clashes in the suburbs. Two autopsies and four separate medical examinations have offered conflicting reasons for Traoré’s death, with his family maintaining that he suffocated under the weight of the three officers who used a controversial technique to restrain him.

Protesters hold up signs reading "Black Lives Matter", "Stop killing us" and "Justice for Adama".
Protesters hold up signs reading "Black Lives Matter", "Stop killing us" and "Justice for Adama". © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Outside the courthouse on Tuesday, many protesters carried signs reading “I can’t breathe” — the last words spoken by both Floyd and Traoré.

“Today, it’s no longer the fight of the Traoré family — it’s your fight too,” Assa Traoré, Adama Traoré’s sister and one of the march’s key organizers, told the crowd. “Today, when we fight for George Floyd, we fight for Adama Traoré too.”

Vicious cycle

Hours before the protest, the Paris prefect announced he was banning the event on public health grounds — a move many protesters saw as further evidence of double standards.

“Even as we speak, the whole of Paris is out on bar terraces. None of them wear masks, where’s the social distancing?” asked Loom pointing towards the city centre, where large crowds enjoyed their first evening out after an 11-week lockdown. 

“Look at our crowd instead: everyone wears a mask, everyone is careful,” he added, glossing over a minority of marchers who left their masks flapping under their chin or carried none.

Several protesters highlighted the contrast between the urgency of their cause and the insouciant revelling just around the corner.

“The authorities are happy to open bars and shopping malls but they won’t let us protest against racism and injustice,” said 17-year-old Anna Boisnot, who turned up with her friends despite their qualms regarding the coronavirus.

“We’re worried of course, particularly for our parents. But we had to be here, we can’t go on living in a world where only coloured people like us are harassed by the police,” said Marlene Meite, 16. “Racism is implanted in our society, it’s become banal, people don’t even see it anymore,” added their friend Raphaël Bavioudy.

The trio were heartened to see many white people in the crowd — including 29-year-old Maxime, who said he was “sick and tired of seeing the same cycle of violence, hatred and impunity again and again”.

“The vicious cycle just keeps on repeating itself,” said the Swiss-born photographer, who declined to give his full name. “Being white it’s often hard to see the racism, the discrimination that is so pervasive. And the more we get on in life, the less we are likely to see it, because we take such different paths from those who start at a disadvantage.”

Inégalité

France’s intersecting social and racial inequalities were once again exposed during the nationwide lockdown imposed in mid-March to stem the spread of Covid-19.

On the first day of confinement, the Seine-Saint-Denis department northeast of Paris – home to France’s poorest and most immigrant-rich districts – accounted for 10 percent of all fines handed out for breaching the lockdown, despite comprising just over two percent of the country’s population. Over the subsequent weeks, videos of heavy-handed and racially-charged arrests circulated widely on French social media, prompting outrage and calls for revenge. 

Healthwise, Seine-Saint-Denis also paid a disproportionately heavy price. The combination of large families in cramped quarters and a lack of doctors and hospital beds left the local population particularly exposed to the virus. And while many Parisians fled to countryside residences or switched to working from home, the capital’s poorer suburbs supplied most of the frontline workers who kept the metropolis running.

But for France’s proudly egalitarian — and supposedly colour-blind — institutions, the racialised nature of such inequalities simply doesn’t exist, neither as a statistic nor as a distinct social experience. 

“All that talk of equality and fraternity, it’s bullshit,” said former journalist Divy Vasanth, slamming the authorities and the media for refusing to engage with minorities and acknowledge racial inequalities.

Vasanth pointed to the case of French singer and actress Camélia Jordana, who recently caused a storm by using the term “massacre” to talk of police violence in the suburbs. The ensuing backlash, he argued, is indicative of a society that ignores people so long as they live in the banlieue and expects them to be grateful and “shut up” when they are successful. 

“When Assa Traoré speaks, she’s told to shut it because she’s from the suburbs. And when Camélia Jordana says something, she’s told she has no reason to complain,” Vasanth said. “They don’t listen to what we have to say: they mock the words we use and ignore the substance.”

Police ‘suffering too’

“We’re black, brown, white etc. This is the reality. And we need to stop pretending that blacks and others are not discriminated against,” said Maelle M., a 23-year-old student from the Paris suburbs, standing nearby with a sign reading: “It’s not black vs white. It’s everyone vs racists”.

Maelle and her friend Aline also dithered at length before joining the rally, fearing for their safety. They carried milk and eye drops in their rucksacks to ease the sting from teargas. 

“Of course France and America are very different countries, but they have a common enemy: racism,” said Maelle. “Nothing will ever change until people are educated about racism. Starting with the police.”

For Maelle M. (right) and her friend Aline, tackling racism is they key to healing the fraught relationship between police and youths in the suburbs.
For Maelle M. (right) and her friend Aline, tackling racism is they key to healing the fraught relationship between police and youths in the suburbs. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

The antagonism between French police and minority groups in deprived areas reflects a structural reluctance to engage with local communities.

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. 

Ever since, left-wing politicians have regularly floated the idea of reintroducing some form of police de proximité. But former 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.

Such broken promises have widened the gulf between politicians and minorities, said Loom, lamenting the small number of politicians attending Tuesday’s rally.

“Only the extremes take an interest: the far left to support us and the far right to back the police,” he quipped. “As for the mainstream, they don’t care.”

Loom said politicians were not helping the police by allowing the cycle of violence and hatred to drag on instead of addressing its root causes. Officials should reintroduce community policy and stop deploying rookie officers with no knowledge of the terrain, he argued.

“When talking about the banlieue, people use the words ‘gangs’ and ‘omertà’ (code of silence). But there’s far more omertà in the police,” he said. “And they’re suffering from this too.”

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