Ever since the death of George Floyd on the 25th of May, we have seen the Black Lives Matter movement gain global momentum. Across the world we have witnessed demonstrators gathering to demand fundamental change in policing, government, education, and society at large. Progress has already been made; the four police officers involved in the death of Floyd are now facing charges, the Minneapolis police department is to be dismantled, and in the UK we have seen the Crown Prosecution Service demand that the death of Belly Mujinga, a mother who passed away from Covid-19 after being spat in the face by a man claiming to be infected, is investigated. The fight is far from over, but we can already see the start of change.
However, it is time that we look across the Channel and collectively place pressure on the Macron administration in France.
Four years ago, Adama Traoré, a young Malian French man, died in custody only two hours after his arrest, having fled from the police as he was not carrying his ID card. His death was all too similar to that of Floyd’s – his final words were also ‘I can’t breathe’. On the 29th of May this year, only four days after Floyd’s death, the French legal authorities released a report clearing the officers in question of any wrongdoing. Over the past two weeks, we have seen France erupt into protest once again, both in solidarity with the ongoing US protests but also once again to demand justice for Adama. On the 2nd of June, over 20,000 protesters gathered in Paris, with thousands more across French towns and cities.
Although the Traoré case has rightfully become a symbol of France’s ever-present police brutality, his case was by no means unique, being a single victim of the xenophobia and systematic racism that appears to run deeply through the French state. The spark of the 2017 riots in France was another case of racially motivated police brutality against Théo Luhaka, a young black man who was beaten and raped by a group of four police officers. He also reported that the officers shouted racial slurs at him, while one sprayed tear gas around his head. The injuries that he sustained were declared to be life-changing by his doctor, not to mention the horrific psychological trauma. The case of François Bayiga, a disabled man who was subject to racial slurs and was violently seized by the neck as he was apparently ‘preparing to urinate on the tracks’, is yet another example of unnecessary violence that appears widespread among the French police force.
The severity of these cases even led the United Nations High Commission to question the French government on their ‘excessive use of force by the police’. Despite a lack of recognition from the French government, the urgency of the situation is clear.
In the last month of 2019 and the early months of this year, France witnessed the longest and most widespread strike in its history. For anyone who is acquainted with modern French history and the French pride in their culture of striking, this was a major event. As the months went by, videos of police violence against protesters spread online. After months of escalation, the Macron administration was forced to speak out. Marcon warned of ‘unacceptable behaviour’ within the police force and demanded that police ethics be reviewed.
This is a dramatic contrast to his government’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests this month. A spokesperson for Macron stated last week that ‘France is not a racist country’, with no institutionalised state violence, even going as far to say that there is no link between the death of Traoré and the death of Floyd. Equally, Christian Jacob, the President of Les Républicains, the main centre-right, conservative party in France, denied that the French police force is violent in nature and insisted that police brutality simply does not exist.
It is telling that Macron was willing to call out police brutality during a history-defining strike that went directly against him and his policy but denies the same recognition to a protest demanding racial equality. The first, despite in some ways being more of a threat to his government, was ‘French’ in nature and therefore was granted dignity. In contrast, the latter was and still is seen as ‘foreign’ and was met with hostility.
Turning to education, two short examples demonstrate the systematic racism and lack of a critical understanding of colonial history in French society. In 2005, the French National Assembly attempted to pass a law forcing schools to teach ‘the positive role of French presence overseas, especially in North Africa’. It only takes a small amount of knowledge of the events of the Algerian War sixty years ago, particularly the widespread use of torture by the French Armed Forces, to recognise how immoral this decision was. Furthermore, a survey in 2014 reported that the French believed immigrants made up 31% of the population – it is in fact around 11%. In a country where politics is moving further to the right, with the extreme, anti-immigration party Le Rassemblement National having grown in popularity over the past decade, the centre is also moving to the right to maintain their voters. For example, in 2019 Macron launched a national debate on immigration, stating that the French working class ‘endure’ the influx of foreigners in the same way as they do unemployment.
After a week of protests in France, on the 9th of June the practise of a chokehold arrest was finally banned – until the 16th of June. The interior minister had initially announced that the method would no longer be taught in police and gendarmerie schools, acknowledging it is a method that ‘has its dangers’. But this ruling was met by protests from the police, and from the 12th of June policemen gathered at the Champs Elysée and Trocadéro to oppose the change. Police unions and officers publicly denied any systematic racism within the force, and on the 16th of June, the national police chief, Frédéric Veaux, announced that the ban would be reversed after police officers argued that the chokehold is necessary for their safety.
Campaigners have highlighted that the death of Adama Traoré was also similar to the death of Cédric Chouviat earlier this year. Chouviat was a delivery driver who died after being placed in the chokehold – which has also been banned in Switzerland and Belgium – as officers claimed that he behaved aggressively after being stopped on his scooter.
It must be emphasised that incidents of police brutality are by no means the only examples of racism in recent years within the French police force. Only two weeks ago, at the same time as Black Lives Matter protests spread across France and the globe, a Facebook group for police officers and gendarmes of over 7,760 members was revealed to be filled with racist, homophobic and sexist comments. Although a single group chat does not represent an entire institution, it is disturbing that it has come to light at the same time as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
As the movement gains more momentum than ever before, it is slowly becoming more probable that Adama Traoré and Théo Luhaka, to name just two, will have justice. But the situation in France still has had little media coverage in the UK, as well as having minimal impact on our social media. Although it is undeniable that there are times when news broadcasts must choose to focus predominantly on events at home, it is up to us to educate ourselves on what is happening across the Channel and to place pressure on the Macron administration.
A dangerous, xenophobic, and racist rhetoric has taken hold across in mainstream French politics in the last decade. Many scramble to find easy answers to issues such as terrorism, unemployment, and poverty, allowing violence in the police force to remain commonplace. Although it is clear this is an issue by no means unique to France, it is vital that we Anglophones educate ourselves on the horrific case of Adama Traoré, and so many others, both in France and across Europe. It is clear that we must not allow the fight to subside – it is time that we collectively demand change from the Macron administration in the police force, the government, in education, and in all other aspects of life. Failure to speak out, to protest, to sign petitions, and to make others aware is to be complicit.