A year of reckoning with racism in France

MIRA KAMDAR

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IN 2018, France’s parliament unanimously voted to strike the word ‘race’ from the country’s 1958 constitution, the constitution that defines France’s Fifth Republic, and to add in its place the word ‘sex’. The change concerns Article 1, where it is stated that France ‘assures all citizens equality before the law without distinction of origin, race or religion.’ The argument was that ‘race’ is not a scientifically or legally meaningful category. Since race, in the case of human beings, does not exist, distinctions among citizens according to race are a fiction the constitution of France need not recognize. Equality between men and women, on the other hand, the argument went, needs constitutional affirmation as a means of protecting women from discrimination. While adding the word ‘sex’ to the constitution may be applauded in the name of gender equality, recent events in France demonstrate that deleting the word ‘race’ from France’s foundational legal document has done little to eliminate deeply entrenched racism in French society.

In late 2020, in the midst of a national debate on freedom of the press and expression over the right to film or photograph police engaging in acts of brutality, the issue of racism, specifically systemic racism in policing, exploded onto the national scene of a nation exhausted by terrorist attacks and Covid lockdowns. On 26 November, the French video news site Loopsider posted footage from security cameras showing several policemen savagely beating Michel Zecler, a Black music producer, in his own recording studio. The beating continued after the police dragged Zecler out onto the street, and only stopped when neighbours warned the police they were filming them with their smartphones.

The police took Zecler to a station, where he was booked for insulting the police and with attempting to seize one of their weapons. The charges were dropped only after the video of the incident, which clearly showed Zecler offering no resistance, was made public. Mr Zecler claims the police tarred him with racist slurs as they beat him, calling him a ‘sale nègre’, a ‘dirty nigger’. French soccer star Kylian Mbappé, usually mum about his political views, tweeted a photo of the bloodied face of Zecler with the comment: ‘Unbearable video. Inadmissible violence’, together with a quote from a song by French rap star Diams: ‘My own France is mixed, yes, it’s a rainbow.’ In the face of public outcry, three policemen involved in beating Zecler have been suspended and face criminal charges. President Emmanuel Macron said in a long post on his Facebook page that the images of Zecler’s beating ‘make us ashamed.’

Yet Macron’s government is actively pursuing legislation that would make filming the police illegal. Video and photographic images of police brutality are often the only way of holding police to account for abuses. If not for the video, Zecler would likely have ended up in prison, and the police gone scot free, an all too common scenario for minorities brutalized by police in France, especially in the suburban ghettos where policing has deep roots in France’s colonial and xenophobic past.

 

The video of Zecler’s brutalization by police has become a rallying cry for detractors of a new Global Security bill introduced in France’s parliament on 17 October, one of a raft of bills aimed at buttressing French national security and eliminating all possible causes of Islamist radicalism, blamed for fresh terrorist attacks in October, including the beheading of a teacher outside Paris and the knifing death of three worshippers at a church in Nice. Article 24 of the Global Security bill would criminalize the publication or circulation of images of police where the policemen could be identified.

Viewed more than 12 million times as of early December 2020, the video of Zecler’s ordeal has weakened the argument of the French right, including ministers in Macron’s government, that while a few bad apples may exist – and should be punished – there is no such thing as systemic racism and, therefore, no such thing, as ‘police violence’. At the beginning of the year, President Macron said: ‘I reject the words police violence’, saying violence is in society and that the police are in the service of the French Republic.

For France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, the ultimate head of the French police, ‘police violence’ is a non sequitur, because, he argues, the violence wielded by police, aside from a few bad apples, is legitimate force. When he hears the words ‘police violence’, Darmanin told parliament in July, ‘je m’étouffe’, literally ‘I suffocate’, a deliberately provocative allusion to the words ‘J’étouffe’ uttered seven times as by Cédric Chouviat, a 43-year-old delivery man on whose neck a policeman kneeled in Paris in January squeezing the life out of him. It is also an allusion to the words uttered by Black American George Floyd, ‘I can’t breathe’, as he was slowly killed by a white policeman kneeling on his neck in May 2020.

Mr Darmanin’s ‘can’t breathe’ remark was made following a mass protest against racist policing on 13 June 2020 when, in defiance of Covid-related restrictions on public gatherings, some 20,000 people gathered in Paris to link the fate of George Floyd with that of minority victims of police brutality in France. The protest was led by French Black Lives Matter activist Assa Traoré, the sister of Adama Traoré, an apparently healthy 24-year-old French Malian who died mysteriously after just two hours in police custody in 2016. The cause of Traoré’s death remains disputed despite multiple investigations and autopsies. No police have been charged.

 

Darmanin’s remark also came on the heels of police outrage at the inauguration of a mural depicting portraits of George Floyd and Adama Traoré under the banner: ‘Against Racism and Police Violence’ in the Paris suburb of Stains in the administrative department of Seine-Saint-Denis. Seine-Saint-Denis is France’s poorest department, with the highest concentration of immigrants, most North and sub-Saharan Africans from former French colonies. Police angrily protested that the words ‘police’ and ‘violence’ had no place together. The prefect of Seine-Saint-Denis agreed, and ordered the word ‘violence’ erased from the wall painting.

A little short of six months later, the video of the police beating of Zecler has changed the aversion to associating ‘police’ with ‘violence’. In the aftermath of its revelation, the words ‘police’ and ‘violence’ were pronounced together by members of Macron’s government, with several ministers condemning ‘police violence’ on television. Article 24 of the Global Security Bill has become politically toxic, with Macron’s party promising to completely rewrite it and critics calling for it – as well as the rest of the bill, which includes provisions for drone surveillance of citizens and other alarming measures – to be scrapped altogether.

 

Racist police brutality is nothing new in France, especially in the ghettos where many Black and North African-origin immigrants and their families live. A decision by France’s independent Defender of Rights, Claire Hédon, in November refocused national attention on a case involving the 2017 arrest of 22-year-old Théo Luhaka in the Paris banlieue of Aulnaysous-Bois. The arrest was so brutal, Luhaka was left with a 10 centimetre anal tear caused by a police baton so violently speared at him, it resulted in permanent disability. But only some of the interaction between the police and Luhaka was filmed, allowing police to dispute some of the victim’s claims of what they did to him.

In 2005, Zyed Benna, 17 years old, and Bouna Traoré, 15 years old, died by electrocution after taking refuge from police in a power relay station. The boys, returning home from a soccer game, did not have their identity cards on them and feared they would be taken to the local station. In the wake of their deaths, violent riots exploded in minority ghettos across France as rage over relentless, discriminatory harassment by police boiled over.

France has been repeatedly condemned for ethnic profiling in policing. The United Nations, the Open Society Justice Initiative, Human Rights Watch, the European Union and France’s own courts and rights institutions have documented and issued warnings about the practice. An investigation by the Defender of Rights office in 2016, reported that 80 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 who said they had been stopped by police for identity checks were young men ‘perceived as being Black or Arab’, making them 20 times likelier to be stopped by police and asked for their papers than the average person in France.

 

During the first Covid-19 lockdown in France between 17 March and 11 May 2020, police identity checks in minority neighbourhoods on the periphery of Paris were far more frequent than in the city’s tonier quarters. Seine-Saint-Denis alone accounted for 10 percent of all fines levied against citizens nationwide for failing to have valid permission forms for leaving home during the lockdown. Several incidents of shocking police brutality were filmed by witnesses under lockdown in nearby apartments.

Police brutality in France is not limited to racial and religious minorities: The Yellow Vest protests that gripped France beginning in November 2018 were severely repressed by police wielding flash balls and stun grenades. Thousands of people were injured, some losing eyes or hands. Several died. Cédric Chouviat was white. But minority populations in the banlieues have born the biggest brunt of aggressive police tactics. In April 2020, a policeman was videotaped in the Hauts de Seine department outside Paris laughingly remarking that a ‘bicot’, a disparaging racist term for a North African, ‘can’t swim’ after stopping a man who had jumped into the Seine to escape their pursuit.

 

In June, the existence of a private Facebook group to which thousands of police belonged was revealed where disgusting racist, sexist and homophobic remarks were a regular feature. That same month, the Franco-German public media outlet ARTE produced an audio account of racist remarks by colleagues witnessed by a black police officer in Rouen over a period of several years, culminating in the discovery of a WhatsApp group where violent racist images and remarks were shared by people with whom he worked, including remarks directed at him behind his back. He recounts the everyday banality of racism in the force, such as one policeman saying to another in a patrol car when he stops to allow a woman pushing a stroller to cross the street in a sidewalk: ‘Why did you stop? You should have run her over.’ ‘Why?’ the policeman driving replied. ‘She’s a Negress’, explained his partner.

‘Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist’, French President Emmanuel Macron told The New York Times media columnist Ben Smith when he called him up in November 2020 to complain about the paper’s coverage. ‘In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen,’ he told Smith. Macron was taking issue with paper’s coverage of France through a spate of deadly terrorist attacks in the fall of 2020 that began with the beheading of middle-school teacher Samuel Paty on 16 October by a radicalized 18-year-old young man who had immigrated to France from Chechnya. The man was enraged by Paty sharing caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed published in the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Macron was upset because the Times had, as it has for years, included in its coverage reporting on discrimination in France against minorities, especially France’s Muslims. The French president accused the Times of ‘saying the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic’, further accusing the paper of ‘legitimizing this violence’.

As Ben Smith wrote: ‘Legitimizing violence – that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president’, referring to Donald Trump and his attacks on the press. According to Macron’s logic, reporting on the fraught relationship between France and immigrants from former French colonies, most of whom are Black or North African and Muslim, is somehow tantamount to excusing inexcusable acts of terror. Nothing to see here folks. Move along please.

 

If blaming the American press for legitimizing Islamist-inspired beheadings in France weren’t enough, France’s Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer vowed, following Paty’s murder, to root out the ideological evil that foments such acts. In an interview in the Journal de Dimanche published on 24 October, Blanquer said France needed to go to battle against ‘an intellectual matrix that has come from American universities and theses of intersectionality, that wants to essentialize communities and identities. … It’s fertile ground for a fragmentation of our society and a vision of the world that converges with the interests of the Islamists. This reality has notably infected a not negligible part of French social science.’

This declaration basically amounts to accusing French scholars of being complicitous with Islamist terrorism because they write about racism and other forms of discrimination and oppression. The logic here seems to be one of wilful blindness: If scholars didn’t analyse these phenomena, they would not exist.

One needn’t look to the American press or American academia or the American model of multiculturalism – all blamed for undermining France’s universalist model of colour-blind and ethnicity-blind citizenship – to trace the roots of racist police brutality in France. Emmanuel Macron likes to cite the French Enlightenment as the fount of the values of the French Republic – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – he ardently defends; as the epoque when France invented the idea of human rights. But it was during the French Enlightenment, a period of furious European colonial expansion, that the seeds of the racism that now divides France were sown.

 

The stage was set during the 17th century. In 1642, Louis XIII authorized the slave trade, which expanded after a 1672 royal edict encouraging private traders to deal in slaves, promising a payment of thirteen royal pounds for every slave obtained. The French East India Company was founded in 1664 to compete with the British and the Dutch in the lucrative East Indies trade. Its counterpart in the New World was founded the same year. In 1685, Louis XIV published the Black Code of law that applied to slaves in French colonies. The ‘Code Noir’ legitimized slavery, giving Black people in the French Caribbean the status of ‘moveable property’ belonging to their owners.

In 1777, at the height of the French Enlightenment, Louis XVI published a ‘Declaration of the King on the Policing of Blacks’. Alarmed at the increasing number of Blacks and ‘Mulattos’ in France who had been brought over from French colonies in the Americas, Louis XVI forbade anyone to transport a person of colour to France under penalty of stiff fines, and proclaimed that those Blacks and other people of mixed race already in France should be shipped back to the Americas by the first available boat. Any Black or person of colour who was not someone’s property was forbidden from entering France. The ‘policing’ of Blacks amounted to effacing them from France: Their mere presence was seen as an offence.

 

As immigrants, particularly non-European and non-Christian immigrants began arriving in France, special policing aimed at ensuring their invisibility. In 1925, the Indigenous Affairs Service was established at the Paris Prefecture as a special police brigade with the mission of keeping the Algerian immigrant population under control, which largely meant out of sight. In 1941, Philippe Pétain, the leader of Vichy France, created the French National Police, which participated zealously during the Nazi Occupation in rounding up Jews in France for deportation to concentration camps. In 1958, Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis to identify and deport Jews in the Bordeaux region, and had participated in brutally repressing, including torturing, freedom fighters in Algeria in 1956, was appointed to head the Paris police, a post he held until 1966.

On 17 October 1961, while war raged between France and freedom fighters in its colony, Algeria, thousands of Algerians in Paris, mostly men who had come to France to labour in post-war factories, and who chafed under policing that treated them as second-class citizens, participated in a march against a curfew that only applied to them. The National Liberation Front for Algerian independence organized the march. The police, who were given carte blanche by Papon to handle the protestors by any means they liked, arrested some 11,000 people. Many were beaten and tortured. Others were simply shot on sight. Up to 200 were killed in all. One hundred and ten bodies were fished out of the Seine river.

The war in 1962 ended with Algeria’s independence, but the neo-colonial mindset of the French police toward immigrants from North Africa changed little. In the 1970s, the BAC, or Brigade anti-criminalité, was set up in Seine-Saint-Denis to keep a lid on the immigrant population there. The BAC still exists. The Brigade spécialisée du terrain, created by then Interior Minister during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, Brice Hortefeux, was deployed in Seine-Saint-Denis in 2011. ‘Hooligans need to know this: There is no future for them in our country’, warned Hortefeux.

 

The humiliating loss of Algeria continues to haunt France, as does the ‘civilizing mission’ that glorified French imperialism. The idea that French culture is superior, universal even, and that the presence of immigrants is tolerated in France only to the extent to which they become invisible by assimilating into mainstream French society is not just the coin in trade of far-right, nativist politician Marine Le Pen: It is pervasive. Until France accepts that it is a now country of immigrants whose diverse origins are part of their French identity, that universalism is less a reality than an ideal to which all can aspire only when all are treated equally, and that the police should function as protectors of all citizens’ rights and not as brutal enforcers of an unsustainable status quo, racism will continue to plague the country where race does not exist.

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