For many non-white French citizens, the killing of George Floyd, and the militarised police response to the Black Lives Matter protests which followed, hit uncomfortably close to home. The French police have developed a similar reputation for aggressive policing of ethnic minorities, in some cases leading to deaths. The 2005 French riots, which saw the deprived banlieues that encircle Paris set ablaze for three weeks, were triggered by the deaths of two teenagers, one black and one Arab, as they fled from police. Eleven years later, Adama Traoré, a black man, died in police custody in a suburb outside Paris, after reportedly telling officers restraining him that he couldn’t breathe.
The scale and lineage of police violence in the US places it in a league of its own, says Anne-Sophie Simpere, an advocacy officer at Amnesty International France. But activists see similarities in high-profile cases of police brutality in both countries. They hope the global revulsion at Floyd’s death will be a catalyst for reform in France, where they say the police are too eager to use force, sometimes with deadly consequences.
During a #JusticePourAdama rally last week, Traoré’s sister linked her brother’s death to that of Floyd’s, lamenting that both men died in similar circumstances with the same desperate plea on their lips. The protest led Christophe Castaner, the French interior minister, on 8 June, to ban the use of a chokehold during an arrest.
Police are encouraged by bureaucratic targets to harass ethnic minority men, says Rokhaya Diallo, an anti-racist writer. Men perceived as black and Arab are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than white men, according to a report published by an independent authority in charge of human rights in France.
France’s policing practices have never fully shed their colonial origins, believes Diallo. State of emergency laws, which give the government the power to restrict some civil liberties, were drafted during the 1950s, as the French Empire floundered and the Algerian War raged. These provisions, designed to confront asymmetrical urban warfare, remain largely unchanged. “France was a slaving and colonialist country. Its colonial past continues to generate police brutality to this day,” says Diallo.
The EU’s second-largest country by population, may be further disadvantaged in tackling institutional racism because even the very concept is taboo, she says. Diallo is regularly criticised by right-wing politicians and pundits for stating that systemic racism exists in France, a theory not seriously disputed in most other western democracies.
Simpere agrees, adding that the French police are too eager to use force, including against minorities. “Policing is also about what comes before the use of force. France has done far less work on this than the UK and Germany. Police make few efforts to de-escalate tensions before turning to force.”
Officers who use disproportionate force are rarely held accountable for their actions, Simpere says. The officers in whose custody Traoré died have not been dismissed from their positions, still less charged with a crime. “There is a de facto impunity for police officers.”
Impetus for reform has too often been held up by resistance from right-wing politicians. A proposed law would ban the publication of videos of on-duty police officers, leading activists to fear they may soon be denied even the meagre accountability of the phone camera.
The French police are a stronghold of the far-right. Polls show that up to half of police functionaries vote for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, as compared to one in five French citizens. Last week, an investigation was launched into a Facebook group where nearly 8,000 French police and paramilitary gendarmes allegedly used racist slurs, including derogatory terms for black people and Arabs.
The scenes of police violence in the US appear unimaginably remote to many white Europeans. An EU official last week claimed that brutal crackdowns on protesters of the kind ordered in the US could never take place on European soil. But this strikes ethnic minority French citizens as naïve, at best, and wilfully blind at worst.