How opposition to police violence is uniting France’s gilets jaunes and immigrants

Social groups who rarely cross paths are rediscovering the true meaning of fraternity. 

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Adama Traoré and Steve Maia Caniço were both 24 when they died. 

Adama, a black man from Persan, near Paris, was celebrating his birthday on 19 July 2016. He was arrested for fleeing police control, running because he didn’t have his ID. He suffocated in the police station, handcuffed, under the weight of three officers who were immobilising him.

Steve, a white man from Nantes, western France, was attending a concert for France’s traditional Music Day on 21 June 2019 when, late in the night, police doused the crowd with tear gas following the refusal by a DJ to turn the music down. The concert was held by the Loire river and in the confusion, many people fell into the water. Fourteen were rescued; Steve, who couldn’t swim, was not. His body was found in the river more than a month later, last Tuesday.

Adama’s family have been fighting for justice for three years — the precise circumstances of his death have never been explained. His case is one of the most prominent of a long series of police “blunders” in the Paris banlieues (suburbs). Steve’s death sent waves of shock and grief across France this week, as a report by the “police of the police” hastily concluded that his fall into the water was "not linked” to the police operation that unfolded that night.

Had they both lived, Adama and Steve would probably never have met. Yet both their deaths occurred in a context of police violence, which is uniting people in grief for them. 

Over the last decade, police violence in France was mostly confined to cases such as Adama’s: black men or boys who died in murky circumstances and weren’t much talked about. This first changed in 2016, when green activist Rémi Fraisse, a young, white man, died from a police grenade thrown during a protest. It changed decisively in December 2018, when gilets jaunes protesters, a month after the movement was launched in opposition to Emmanuel Macron’s free-market policies, started to lose hands and eyes by the dozen to police weapons. 

No gilets jaunes have died as a result of police violence but an elderly woman from Marseilles, Zineb Redouane, did after she was hurt in the head by a policeman’s rubber gun as she was closing her window during a gilets jaunes march in December. Like Steve, she was not marching, nor a political activist. The names of Adama, Rémi, Zineb, and Steve are now often cited together by critics of French police violence — and the critics are growing in numbers.

In France, ethnic minorities from the banlieues, rural and suburban gilets jaunes, and Nantes locals grieving for their friend make up distinct social groups who rarely cross paths, and usually never join forces. But in recent weeks, previously isolated groups have started to show support to each other. Gilet jaunes marchers in Toulouse, Poitiers and elsewhere have chanted slogans calling for justice for Steve; Jérôme Rodrigues, a gilet jaune who lost an eye in January, attended an event in Nantes commemorating him. “Gilets noirs” (“black vests”), a group of undocumented immigrants who occupied Paris’ Panthéon in July in protest against their treatment by the French police, supported a strike by rail workers, which gilets jaunes also attended. On 21 July, the support group committee for Adama and the national leaders of the gilets jaunes met up in Beaumont-sur-Oise for the third annual march for Adama.

“We have been yellow vests for 40 years,” Assa Traoré, Adama’s sister and the leader of the committee, said at the event. The Adama committee’s spokesperson, Youcef Brakni, said that the people of the banlieues had recognised themselves in the movement, comprised of “abandoned citizens” who had been “reduced to nothing”. 

Gilets noirs and gilets jaunes from Lyon, Toulouse, Grenoble, southern and northern France were attending and shared their own, more recent, experiences of violence by the armed forces. “I am sorry, because for years you have lived what we’re have been living in the last eight months,” said gilets jaunes leader Maxime Nicolle, whose presence surprised many due to his well-known links to the National Front. “I’m sorry not to have listened earlier.” In spite of the vast gap between their lives and ideologies, Assa Traoré and Maxime Nicolle called for a “convergence of their struggles” and unity against a system that oppresses both their groups. 

On Saturday, for the 37th consecutive week, despite a sharp reduction in numbers, gilets jaunes will march across France, with events dedicated to Steve’s memory planned in Paris and Nantes. “For Steve, Adama, Zined and all the Yellow Vests and banlieues youth killed by the police, we will set fire everywhere in France, especially in Nantes”, a message on a gilets jaunes group reads.

It is unclear whether these varied struggles can achieve harmony — for now, the committees for Steve, Adama, or the “gilets noirs” have not said they will march on Saturday. But while the spectrum of French victims of police violence is widening, isolated groups are isolated no more. Gilets jaunes and grieving Nantes locals are unanimously calling for the interior minister, Christophe Castaner, to resign. Not only are the combined losses of Adama, Zineb and Steve starting little fires everywhere; they are helping redefine the true meaning of French “fraternity”.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.