French riot police. Photo: Kristoffer Trolle French riot police. Photo: Kristoffer Trolle

In Paris and across France, thousands of protestors are defying bans to express their outrage at police racism and violence, reports Susan Ram

On the evening of June 2, 40,000 protestors took to the streets of Paris to march against police racism and violence. In defiance of a banning order imposed by the capital’s Prefecture, under the pretext of Covid-19 restrictions, demonstrators wearing medical masks and observing social distancing focussed their fury on two specific manifestations of police brutality: the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May and the killing of 24-year-old Adama Traoré by police at Beaumont-sur-Oise near Paris in July 2016.  

The demonstration had been called a few days earlier by the collective Vérité pour Adama (Truth for Adama) following the latest development in the four-year cover-up of role played by the police in Adama’s death. A third official autopsy –  forced by relentless pressure from campaigners — had on May 30 yet again attributed the young man’s death to “underlying medical conditions”, rather than to asphyxiation by his arresting officers (as established by independent investigators). The coincidence of George Floyd’s dying in horribly similar circumstances seemed to light a touch paper, transforming the latest in a series of demonstrations for justice into a great roar of rage against the entrenched racism and brutality of French ‘law enforcers’ and the state they defend.  

In a demonstration marked by its youthfulness, diversity and multicultural composition, placards and slogans (in English as well as French) highlighted the parallels between home-grown police racism and its overseas counterparts. “I can’t breathe”, “Je veux respirer”; “No justice, no peace!”; “Même police, mème racisme!” “Our lives count for nothing!: these are emerging as the battle cries of France’s insurgent anti-racist movement.

Predictably, French security forces intervened quickly to gas, bludgeon and disrupt what was essentially a peaceful protest. The last minute ban issued by the Paris prefect of police, Didier Lallement (notorious for his comments during a live TV interview that those dying of coronavirus had only themselves to blame), was accurately read by organisers and participants as a set-up.  

This was the second ban-breaking demonstration against racism to take place in the French capital in a matter of days. On Saturday May 30, more than 5,000 undocumented workers (sans-papiers) accompanied by supporters drawn from 195  organisations assembled outside the prefecture of police before marching to the Place de la République. Slogans and placards demanded the regularisation of the sans-papiers, deplored the racism and violence they receive at the hands of the police, and highlighted their particular vulnerability to the ‘health bomb’ effects of the Covid-19, from the cramped, insanitary nature of their living conditions to their total lack of access to health care.     

Outside Paris, anger at the institutionalised nature of racism and violence within the police and security forces has drawn people onto the streets in multiple locations. On Tuesday 2 June, coordinated demonstrations took place in Lyon, Marseille and Lille, while the following day saw thousands protesting on the streets of Toulouse and Montpellier. In every instance, Yellow vests (Gilets jaunes) were present in large numbers.

These events illustrate the capacity of the growing international movement against police racism and repression to connect with, and re-energise, pre-existing struggles. In France, the uprising currently sweeping the United States has injected fresh impetus into the campaign for justice for Adama Traoré, perhaps the country’s signature anti-racist mobilisation.

Adama was in a bar celebrating his 24th birthday the day he died. His ‘mistake’ was to run off when gendarmes suddenly showed up to arrest his brother, wanted in connection with a minor offence. Eventually captured, Adama was handcuffed and forced to lie face down on the ground, where three gendarmes locked him in a plaquage ventral: a technique involving compression of the thorax and/or stomach, and by that token capable of resulting in asphyxia.

“I can’t breathe, I’m having difficulty breathing,” gasped Adama repeatedly.  

By the end of the short drive to the police station, he had lost consciousness. Paramedics were unable to revive him and he was declared dead later that summer evening. Several more hours elapsed before his family, anxiously awaiting news at the police station, were informed of his death.  

As in the case of Stephen Lawrence, it was Adama’s bereaved family who first challenged the handling of the investigation into his death. At the initiative of his elder sister Assa, a wider campaign for truth and justice then took root, geared to repudiating official efforts to devise and perpetuate a cover-up. Over the past four years this has developed into a combative, high-profile crusade that, through creative engagement with other movements, including that of the Yellow vests, has directed an unforgiving spotlight on racism in France.  

From the start, the weight of the French state, as expressed through its medico-juridical institutions as well as its security apparatus, has been applied to concealing the explicit and direct role of police officers in Adama’s death. Via a sequence of autopsies and enquiries, French officialdom has sought to nail in place the ‘finding’ that Adama died as a result of pre-existing medical conditions – whether a weak heart, an infection attacking various organs or some other weakness (‘explanations’ have varied). At every step, the cover-up has been stymied by the relentless, indefatigable efforts of campaigners in search of truth and justice.

Now George Floyd’s ghastly end in distant Minneapolis has fused with this ongoing battle for justice, infusing it with fresh vigour while underlining the international dimensions of the struggle against racism.

Reinforcing the developing anti-racist tide in France is the specific experience of black, Muslim and ethnic minority citizens under Covid-19 lockdown: the way in which they have been singled out for abuse and violence by police shielding behind the pretext of lockdown enforcement. Documented by videos posted on social media, multiple instances of police thuggery against black and brown French citizens are on record and available for everyone to see. Integral to the gallery of disrepute, they join the images of blinded Yellow vests, of people maimed by high velocity police weapons outlawed elsewhere in Europe, of hands-on-head school children under guard by armed police, of elderly citizens beaten to the ground by those ostensibly there to keep them ‘safe’.  

The ground is shifting in France. Anti-racism is in the air.

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Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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