Until recently, the Parisian suburb of Trappes was famous for producing some of France’s brightest stars, including footballer Nicolas Anelka and comedian Jamel Debbouze. But this weekend, it gained notoriety as the site of the latest burka ban controversy.
At the heart of the recent protests is a concern over systemic and institutionalised racism in France’s establishment and the unwillingness on the part of politicians and sections of the media, to confront it.
The disturbances began following the ID check of a woman wearing the face veil. What ensued remains unclear, with dramatically diverging testimonials from police and eyewitnesses.
[There are] persistent allegations that French police use excessive force, particularly in their dealings with residents of France’s impoverished and marginalised suburbs.
The police claim face-veil clad Hajjar, who was accompanied by her mother, husband and four month old baby resisted the check and that her husband reacted violently, assaulting an officer. Official sources present the resultant protests as opposition to the enforcement of the 2011 ban on face veils by ‘Islamic militant elements’.
For her part, Hajjar claims she and her husband, 21 year old Michael, were the victims of excessive force used by bigoted police officers. Eyewitnesses confirm Hajjar’s testimonial that she was violently dragged by her hair and pinned against a police car. Her husband intervened and was handcuffed.
Both Hajjar and eyewitnesses deny police claims that the couple were violent towards police officers. According to Samba, a representative for the Association of residents of Trappes, a North African woman who attempted to intervene was told to “sod off, you dirty Arab”, by officers present.
Following the incident, around 200 (mainly) peaceful protestors, including women and children, gathered outside the local police station on Friday evening, objecting to the treatment of the couple and to the unwillingness of the local police station to hear a complaint over the behaviour of the officers.
What is certain is that a minority of protestors clashed with police officers who responded in full riot gear, using tear gas. A fourteen year old boy suffered a serious eye injury and a police officer was injured. Six people were arrested – three of whom have since been handed sentences ranging from ten to six months.
One of those arrested ended up with 15 stitches, head injuries and a broken leg, all of which he claims occurred at the hands of seven police officers who assaulted him without provocation.
In a visit to Trappes on Monday, Interior Minister Manuel Valls was intercepted by a woman who expressed the distress of the residents and concern over a “two tier system” in which police violence goes unchecked. Highlighting the current gulf separating politicians from some of France’s most marginalised communities, Valls responded by chastising the woman for questioning the police force’s integrity.
Despite the serious nature of the allegations, as well as the injuries sustained, Valls has publicly stated that he is in no doubt that the “police did their job perfectly”. This, despite persistent allegations that French police use excessive force, particularly in their dealings with residents of France’s impoverished and marginalised suburbs.
France has yet to have an equivalent to the Stephen Lawrence case, a watershed moment in which the entire police force is made to confront its racist elements
A 2009 Amnesty International report highlighted how allegations of unlawful killings, beatings, racial abuse and excessive use of force by France’s police officers are rarely investigated effectively. Despite accusations of gross human rights violations, often against ethnic minorities, officers are seldom brought to justice.
Just last year, 30 year old Wissam El Yamni fell into a coma and died in police custody following a forceful arrest. It has been a year, and no police officer has been put on trial or has even faced a judge. No explanations have yet been offered on why Wissam’s body showed bruises, red marks around his neck as well as fractures.
Also last year, residents of Aulnay sous-Bois accused the police of complicity in the death of 25 year old Christian Lambert during a stop and search. Although official reports claim he died of a heart attack, friends point to the excessive use of force by officers on the day which they felt was partly to blame.
Allegations of police brutality are not uncommon in France’s poorest neighbourhoods where the police are often viewed as a violent instrument of state repression, subduing the poorest and most marginalised, with little accountability. Just days before this most recent incident, residents of Aulnay-sous-bois complained of the police’s heavy handed tactics during Bastille Day celebrations on July 14th, in which municipal employees claim to have been beaten by officers.
These incidents are indicative of the tense relationship between residents of certain neighbourhoods and some of the officers charged with policing the areas. Just days after the disturbances in Trappes, French Muslim website al-Kanz posted screenshots from an unofficial police Facebook forum, “Forum Police-Info”, in which officers expressed racism and violent intent including a call to “empty your munitions in Trappes” and “watch out for cameras and take no prisoners” as well as support for the Far Right.
“Spent the night in Trappes, poor France, long live bleu Marine”, one post read, in reference to national front leader Marine Le Pen. The page has since been taken down, as has the profile of one of the officers who appeared to have been present in Trappes, but the feeling that officers are often racist and bigoted prevails.
Politicians and sections of the French media have framed the incident as reflecting tensions over the ban on face veils, however Hajjar states she has previously been stopped because of her face veil and no trouble resulted.
|Clashes erupt in France over veil ban|
Although the ban on face veils is perceived in some circles are another opportunity to stigmatise Muslims, recent events reflect far deeper anxieties over police brutality, an unwillingness among government officials to hear sections of the French citizenry and double standards in the treatment of ethnic minorities who already experience discrimination in many facets of French life, from employment to housing.
Valls’ statement confirms a widespread sentiment that French citizens who live in impoverished suburbs, be they Muslim or not, don’t matter and that violence against them occurs in all impunity.
Despite the law banning face veils having been justified on the basis of protecting public order (although there is no evidence it previously threatened it), the law has led to increased discrimination against Muslim women, including acts of violence by vigilantes.
With worrying acts of Islamophobia increasingly common in France, including at a legislative level where UMP MPs are now seeking to extend the ban of the headscarf from the public sector to the private sector, many French Muslims feel the authorities are deaf to their concerns.
Hajjar’s offence was no more serious than a minor traffic infraction – but the treatment which she, and others, allege followed is far more serious. In dismissing accounts of police brutality, the authorities are confirming the widely held perception of a system in which residents of poorer suburbs, minorities and Muslims in particular are less worthy of public protection and fair game for stigmatisation and violence. France has yet to have an equivalent to the Stephen Lawrence case, a watershed moment in which the entire police force is made to confront its racist elements.
In response to the events in Trappes, Valls insisted there is “only one law in this country”, a law burka-clad women could not be absolved from obeying. It is time for an independent inquiry which can help heal the chasm in French society by vindicating victims of police abuse and reassuring the residents of Trappes and elsewhere that indeed, there is only one law and that no one stands above it. Not even the police.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a freelance journalist. She is studying for a DPhil at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco.
Follow her on Twitter: @MFrancoisCerrah