France is still in denial about racism and police brutality

The fight to break the French state’s wall of denial and indifference about radicalised police brutality continues.

France anti-racism protest REuters
A woman wearing a protective face mask holds a banner as she attends a protest against police brutality, at Place de la Republique in Lille, France June 10, 2020 [Pascal Rossignol/Reuters]

“George Floyd and my little brother died in exactly the same way.” These are the words of Assa Traore, whose brother, Adama, died in the custody of French police in a Paris suburb in July 2016.

Traore, a 24-year-old Black Frenchman, was apprehended by three gendarmes following a dispute over an identity check. He lost consciousness in their vehicle and died at a nearby police station. He was still handcuffed when paramedics arrived. One of the three arresting officers told investigators that Adama had been pinned down with their combined body weight after his arrest. 

Ever since his untimely death, Traore’s grieving family has been fighting for justice. They launched petitions, organised protests, and commissioned private autopsies to discover what caused a perfectly healthy young man to suddenly stop breathing a few hours after being arrested over a trivial matter. Despite their efforts, however, they did not get any satisfactory answers from the authorities. Last month, French medical experts exonerated the three police officers once again, dismissing a medical report commissioned by the young man’s family that said he had died of asphyxiation. None of the arresting officers ever faced any charges over his death. They are still employed by the same police force. Some members of their brigade even received commendations for the role they played in suppressing the protests that followed Traore’s death.  

George Floyd’s brutal murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and the widespread protests that followed, magnified attention on Traore’s death and renewed calls for the French state to address racism and brutality within the police force.   

When the Justice and Truth for Adama committee asked people to take to the streets of Paris to protest against racist police brutality in France and across the world – and to once again demand justice for Adama Traore – 23,000 people (60,000 according to the rally’s organisers) answered their call.  

“Today we are not just talking about the fight of the Traore family. It is the fight for everyone. When we fight for George Floyd, we fight for Adama Traore,” Adama’s sister said at the June 2 protest.

“What is happening in the United States is an echo of what is happening in France,” she added.

The landmark march – the largest such protest in the country’s recent history – demonstrated clearly that a large section of French society wants the security forces to be held accountable for their violent and discriminatory actions and policies. Nevertheless, the French state responded to this growing call for action with hostility and denial. 

The authorities not only tried to ban the protest due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also expressed their sympathy for the “pain” police officers must be feeling as a result of the accusations and protests.  

In a letter to the 27,500 law enforcers working in Paris, the city’s police chief, Didier Lallement, wrote that he sympathises with the “pain” officers must feel as they face “accusations of violence and racism, repeated endlessly by social networks and certain activist groups”. The Paris police force “is neither violent, nor racist: it acts within the framework of the right to liberty for all,” he added. 

Lallement’s letter drew anger and controversy, but it was in no way an outlier in the authorities’ response to the accusations of institutionalised racism and police brutality in France.

Just a few days before the killing of George Floyd, French-Algerian actress and singer Camelia Jordana had publicly condemned racialised police brutality in the country. 

Speaking on a talk show on France 2 television, the 27-year-old actress said, “Men and women who work in the suburbs get massacred for no other reason than the colour of their skin. It’s a fact.”

“There are thousands of people who do not feel safe in front of a policeman in France. And I am one of them,” she added. 

For many in France, and especially for visible minorities, Jordana’s words were nothing but a statement of fact. But for the French authorities, they were an attack on the very core of the French Republic. 

As police unions across the country called the state to take legal action against Jordana, a Cesar Award winner, for defaming the police force, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner joined the conversation and declared, “the freedom of public debate does not allow everything and anything to be said”. “What she said is false and unfair,” he added, “we will not allow the honour of the Republic to be tarnished in this way”. 

The minister’s assertion that “not everything and anything can be publicly said in France” was an unexpected attack on free speech in a country that takes pride in its centuries-old commitment to freedom of expression. But Castaner’s words did not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the French state’s sustained efforts to silence any public figure who dares to question the misconception that French security forces treat all of the country’s citizens equally. It was only in March 2019, after all, that President Emmanuel Macron told French people “do not speak of repression or police violence; such words are unacceptable in a state under the rule of law.”

It has long been established, through countless research papers, the state’s own statistics and well-documented experiences of minority communities, however, that non-white and/or lower-income populations in France are subject to disproportionate police attention and violence.  

In 1999, the so-called “country of human rights” became the first European Union state to be convicted of torture by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, for the violent and sexually charged abuse of a young man in police custody. The victim, Ahmed Selmouni, was a French citizen of North African origin.  

In 2012, Human Rights Watch argued in a 55-page report that “French police are using overly broad powers to conduct unwarranted and abusive identity checks on black and Arab young men and boys”.

“Minority youth, including children as young as 13, are subjected to frequent stops involving lengthy questioning, invasive body pat-downs, and the search of personal belongings,” the international rights group added. “These arbitrary stops can take place even in the absence of any indication of wrongdoing.”

In 2015, the Court of Appeal of Paris sanctioned the French state for allowing security forces to conduct arbitrary identity checks on citizens, based solely on their physical features. The state applied to the Court of Cassation to reverse the judgement, and according to the official documents obtained and published by Mediapart, it argued that the police force is legitimately conducting a disproportionate number of identity checks on Black and Arab men because they are “more likely to be foreigners and therefore undocumented”. 

Despite the state’s efforts to legitimise the racist actions of security forces, however, the Court of Cassation confirmed the conviction, underlining the fact that race-based identity checks are a daily reality in France, regularly condemned by international, European and domestic institutions. 

ACAT, an anti-torture NGO, meanwhile, found in its investigation into the use of force by law enforcement officials in France that “visible minorities” constitute “a significant proportion of victims … particularly … concerning deaths”. 

In 2016, the United Nations Committee against Torture also criticised France for “the excessive use of force by police officials which, in certain cases, resulted in serious injuries or deaths”.

In the past few months, many more discriminatory and violent practices of French police officers were made public.

In April, StreetPress revealed the existence of a private Facebook group that has 8,000 members, in which police officers regularly shared sexist and racist content, and mocked victims of police violence. 

In May, the Defender of Rights, the administrative authority in charge of combating discrimination in France, published a damning report accusing the Paris police of “systematic discrimination” against minority youths. 

Just last week, Mediapart revealed that a Black police officer reported some of his colleagues to their superiors last December for participating in a WhatsApp group in which racist, white supremacist, sexist and homophobic messages were shared. Five months later, all the accused officers are reportedly still on the job. 

The discriminatory and violent actions of the French police make up a long list. French security forces may not be using firearms as widely and openly as their American counterparts, but this lack of firepower rarely prevents them from inflicting deadly violence on members of minority communities.  

In France, most of the deaths in police custody in recent years were caused by the obstruction of the suspects’ airways. In 2007, Lamine Dieng died of asphyxiation in a police van. In 2008, Hakim Ajimi lost his life after two police officers throttled him and compressed his chest. In 2015, Amadou Koume died of asphyxiation after being arrested in a bar. A year later, Adama Traore died under the weight of three gendarmes. Most of the deceased had one thing in common other than the way they died: An Arabic or African-sounding name. 

On June 8, following the “Justice for Adama” protests in Paris, the French government finally announced that police will no longer be able to use chokeholds when arresting people.

Interior Minister Castaner said the use of chokeholds was a “dangerous method” and will no longer be taught in police training. 

Contradicting his recent assertion that Camelia Jordana’s statement about police brutality in France was “false and unfair”, he also claimed that he now hears the “calls against hatred” in his country. “Racism has no place in our society, not in our Republic,” he added, without a hint of irony. 

The government’s apparent about-turn regarding the use of chokeholds proves that widespread public anger and protests can succeed in breaking the French state’s wall of denial and indifference about radicalised police brutality in the country. 

However, this is just the beginning.  

Activists, NGOs, international institutions and courts have long been presenting the French state with ample evidence of the misdeeds of its police forces. The fact that it refused to take action, and even denied the existence of a problem, for so many years indicates that it is not only complacent about but also tacitly supportive of the violence French security forces inflict on minority communities. 

Moreover, the state’s ongoing attempts to silence public figures like Jordana who dare to speak of the abuse Black and Brown bodies suffer at the hands of French police officers, and repeated claims that “racism has no place in France” show that it is not yet ready to accept the gravity of the problem.

To end police brutality in France for good, deliver justice for Adama, and ensure all citizens of France are treated according to the country’s guiding principles of “liberty, equality, fraternity”, the fight must go on. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.