17 June 2020
Continuing a series of articles examining racial discrimination, police brutality and mass protesting, we explore the resurgence of anti-racism activism across the world, including in France where police violence involving people of colour goes back decades.
Clashes broke out with police in Paris on 2 June when around 20,000 people rallied, in defiance of COVID-19 social distancing measures, to demand "Justice for Adama". Adama Traoré was killed by police in July 2016 in a similar incident to that in which George Floyd was killed in the United States (US). Some of the protesters carried Black Lives Matters signs, in support of the movement which has inspired recent demonstrations across the globe, and protests were also held across the country, including in Marseille, Lyon and Lille. The demonstrations are not merely in solidarity with those in the US but represent the wider problem of police racism and violence against people of colour, mainly Black and Arab individuals, which has a long history in France.
Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Black man, was stopped by police while with his brother in the Beaumont-sur-Oise suburb of Paris on 19 July 2016. Traoré tried to run as he did not have his identity card with him but was chased down by three police officers and eventually arrested. No footage of the arrest exists and there were no witnesses but Traoré died two hours later in police custody. Testimonies from the arresting officers indicated that Traoré had complained of having difficulty breathing while being restrained and officers had pinned him down using their body weight. Despite numerous attempts to uncover what actually happened during the arrest, Traoré's family have faced institutional barriers to finding out the truth throughout the process – to date there have been at least six conflicting autopsy reports, some commissioned independently and others by the prosecutor's office – and the officers involved have been exonerated.
Police violence involving Black and minority ethnic communities has a long history in France and events often follow a similar pattern. The pattern starts with an incident involving police officers and people of colour occurs, such as; the death of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers who were running away from police and were electrocuted when they hid in a power substation in October 2005; the death of 15-year-old Moushin Sehhouli and 16-year-old Laramy Samoura who were killed when a police car hit their motorcycle in 2007; the death of 28-year-old Amine Bentounsi who was shot in the back during a police chase in 2012; and the beating and sexual assault of a 22-year-old black man, identified as Théo, in 2017. Such incidents – which represent only a small number of violent incidents by police – then lead to demonstrations and sometimes riots, which afterwards are used to discredit people of colour by labelling them as violent. This perception is then used as further justification to target people of colour. An investigation by "Défenseur des Droits" in 2017 showed that young men perceived as Arab or Black are 20 times more likely to be stopped for an identity check and 95 percent of those checks do not lead to an arrest. Despite some small measures implemented by authorities to ease tensions in the wake of such incidents, officers often go unpunished and remain on the force and the families of victims are still waiting for a proper explanation about what happened, nevermind justice.
Although France is officially 'colour-blind', where by racial and ethnic categories are not recognised or collected in census data, concerns have justifiably been raised about institutional racism, specifically among the police. It is ironic that despite this 'colour-blindness', French police and their methods are descendants of the security apparatus used to sustain the French colonial empire which was built upon racist ideas. To make matters worse, the lack of mechanisms to hold police accountable or conduct a thorough investigation mean that officers often act with impunity and this in turn helps to perpetuate the pattern outlined above.
Recent police actions against "Yellow Vests" and pension reform protesters have prompted calls by some government officials to question the ethics and actions of certain police officers, and has again brought the issue of police violence to the table. Renewed protests to demand Justice for Adama, and to denounce the wider issue of police violence against people of colour, prompted officials to announce on 8 June that the French police will no longer use the controversial "chokehold" method used to detain suspects. However, the protests across the US for George Floyd have sparked a resurgence of anti-racism activism and it will take more than this to combat racism within the police force and mend the relationship between the police and France's people of colour.