French protests give rise to new ‘Adama’ generation of anti-racism activists

People take part in a march on July 18, 2020 in the Parisian suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise to commemorate Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody four years ago, and to protest against police violence.
People take part in a march on July 18, 2020 in the Parisian suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise to commemorate Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody four years ago, and to protest against police violence. © Bertrand Guay, AFP

Protesters marked the four-year anniversary of the death of Adama Traoré in police custody on Saturday as a new ‘Adama’ generation of activists crossing traditional class and racial lines continue to grow the movement to stamp out racial injustice in France.


The demonstration took place in the Paris suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise on Saturday 18 July to honour Adama Traoré, who died on his 24th birthday in July 2016 after an arrest in circumstances that still remain unclear. Climate activists also joined armed with placards that read: “We want to breathe.”

Traoré’s death has become symbolic of a wider cause to expose police brutality, racial injustice and economic inequities many say disproportionately affect the country’s black and Arab minorities.

Assa Traoré, who started the ‘Truth for Adama’ campaign group after her brother’s death, called Saturday for police to be charged with homicide, saying her brother “took the weight of gendarmes" for several minutes.

"Why did those investigations happen four years later?” Assa Traoré asked reporters. “These investigations are because the people put pressure.”

On Friday it was announced that Adama's case would be reopened with investigating judges wanting to probe the young man's past, as well as that of the gendarmes who arrested him and their possible links.

Lawyers for the officers have denied police were at fault. No one has been charged.

Ms Traoré has become the face of France’s own Black Lives Matter movement organising Saturday’s protest and many others held in recent weeks, which were triggered after worldwide anger over the killing in the US of black man George Floyd at the hands of police.

She said that the movement has reached a tipping point here in France where it is attracting a more diverse generation who are black, white, rich and poor, and who refuse to be silenced.

“We became soldiers in spite of ourselves,” she told AP. "There’s a movement today. We call it the Adama generation, these people who are not afraid anymore, and these are youth who will not shut up.”

Zero tolerance

Despite the French government having promised zero tolerance for racism among police, rights groups say accusations of brutality and racism remain largely unaddressed.

Sociologist Sebastian Roché, who's written a book about police in democracy, told newspaper 20 Minutes that police in France, like the US, target minorities: “We see this during identity controls, the so-called stop and frisk policies.”

However, in terms of violence, Roché said, there is no comparison. “American police kill more than a thousand people a year, out of a population of 320 million inhabitants," he says. "The police in France kill 15 to 20 people in a population of 70 million."

Racial minorities have long contested the idea that equality is a right afforded to all. In 2005, riots broke out in the Paris suburbs, triggered by police treatment of mainly North African immigrants. 

In 2016, France’s top official for defending citizens’ rights, Jacques Toubon, reported that black and Arab French people were 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than others were. Toubon followed up with a study in 2020 exposing systemic racism in the Paris police.

Reckoning with France’s colonial past

Ms Traoré says she wants to recognise not only the victims of discrimination at the hands of police in France but to highlight the ‘systemic’ racism rooted in France’s colonial past.

France she said had failed to come to terms with its colonial history, including slavery. “These are unsaid things that leave traces, and we suffer the consequences,” she told the New York Times.

Former French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe acknowledged that the global outpouring of emotion after Floyd’s death "resonated with the fears and feelings of a part of the French population". He added that “collectively we have not always necessarily been up to the challenge of the Republic's principles".

Demonstrators have since demanded the removal of statues commemorating France’s former colonies in Africa. However, President Emmanuel Macron insisted that those statues would not be taken down.

Some activists have revived calls to legalise the collection of statistics on race, religion or ethnicity in France that they say would be a significant step towards wiping out race-based discrimination.

To challenge France’s official vision of itself as a colourblind society is at the heart of the movement, according to Ms Traoré. She says France should scrap the police oversight agencies, which are currently composed of police themselves, in favour of independent bodies.

“We have to change everything, this systemic racism, we need to break it,” Traoré said.

“Today the fight for Adama Traoré does not belong to the Traoré family anymore,” Traoré said. “It’s representative of a big unease and dysfunction of the French state, so it’s a struggle we take on together.”

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

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