Riot police fired tear gas to prevent thousands of anti-racism protesters marching through central Paris on Saturday, as a wave of anger continued to sweep the world following the death of African American George Floyd in the United States.
The protesters gathered in Place de la Republique, where the crowd chanted “No justice, no peace” and some climbed the statue of Marianne, who personifies the French Republic. Police refused organisers permission to proceed to the Opera House.
The protest was generally peaceful but after three hours, skirmishes broke out. Organisers urged protesters with children to leave as riot police charged pockets of protesters and projectiles were thrown at police lines.
The outrage generated by Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last month has resonated in France, in particular in deprived city suburbs where rights groups say that accusations of brutal treatment by French police of residents of often immigrant background remain largely unaddressed.
Assa Traore, sister of 24-year-old Adama Traore, who died near Paris in 2016 after police detained him, addressed Saturday’s protest.
“The death of George Floyd has a strong echo in the death in France of my little brother,” she said. “What’s happening in the United States is happening in France. Our brothers are dying.”
Traore’s family say he was asphyxiated when three officers held him down with the weight of their bodies. Authorities say the cause of his death is unclear.
One banner carried by the crowd in the Place de la Republique read: “I hope I don’t get killed for being black today”. Another carried a message for the government: “If you sow injustice, you reap a revolt.”
Myriam Boicoulin, 31, who was born in the French Caribbean island of Martinique, said she marched in Paris on Saturday because she “wants to be heard”.
“The fact of being visible is enormous,” Boicoulin said. As a Black woman living in mainland France, she said, “I’m constantly obliged to adapt, to make compromises, not make waves – to be almost white, in fact.”
“It’s the first time people see us,” she told The Associated Press news agency. “Let us breathe.”
Earlier this week, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner acknowledged there were “proven suspicions of racism” within French law enforcement agencies.
His remarks drew condemnation from police unions, which said officers were being scapegoated for deep-rooted social ills. Police have held their own protests in cities across France this week.
Before the protest, in the ethnically diverse Paris suburb of Belleville, one man of Algerian descent said he had been the victim of police violence but he doubted institutional racism ran through the force.
“I’ve been insulted, hit even. But the police aren’t all the same,” he told Reuters TV, identifying himself as Karim. “Unfortunately, this minority is hurting the police.”
Far-right activists unfurled a banner with the words “anti-white racism” from the rooftop of a building overlooking the protest. Residents emerged onto their balconies and ripped it up using knives and scissors, to cheers from below.
Officers prevented people attending the main rally from approaching the counter-demonstrators, but did not detain the far-right activists until two hours later, further angering the crowd below.
Riot police then fired tear gas and charged unruly members of the main protest, urging them to disperse. The crowd initially planned to march through the city, but police decided to block them from moving, citing coronavirus concerns.
Similar protests were also held on Saturday in cities around France, from Rouen in Normandy in the northwest to Marseille on the Mediterranean.
Some demonstrators were encouraged that the French government responded to the past couple of weeks of Floyd-inspired protests by banning police chokehold and launching investigations of racist comments in private Facebook and Whatsapp groups for police.
Protests took place in other countries on Saturday, including in several Australian cities, Taipei, Zurich and London.