EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

Earlier in February, a black Frenchman, only identified as Théo, became a victim of sexual assault by the French police. The incident sparked a series of protests, which certainly did not go unnoticed by the French media. It has, however, become clear that the media coverage both in France and across Europe centered on a rather different issue: multiple headlines portrayed the demonstrations as an outbreak of violent riots and loss of control by the French authorities, completely disregarding the unjust event. This has shifted the focus away from what has initially led the public to march and left the abuse unaddressed. When looking closer at the recent history of police brutality in France, this will come as no surprise; the death of a young black man, Adama Traoré, near Paris last summer and the muted response by the French authorities prompted similar accusations of police violence. What has subsequently become known as the “Justice for Théo” protest was a result of France’s continuous negligence of a much larger systemic problem.

Despite the efforts at political correctness and color-blindness, it is not merely an isolated incident, as numerous cases of minorities being subject to police abuse and racial profiling have been reported in recent years. What triggered the solidarity protests in this particular case, which is but one of many, was the definition of the attack by the police investigators: specifically, using terms such as “alleged”, “accidental” or “unintentional” rather than calling it for what it was: deliberate. Such failure to acknowledge racialized police violence was further emphasized by the restrained and reluctant response from the French authorities, which was faced with sharp criticism from the public. Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve’s statement saying that simply sympathizing with the victim cannot justify the violent protests sparked a wave of outrage and contributed to the long-term feeling of frustration and resentment among the marginalized communities.

Unsurprisingly, the French far-right did not hesitate to capitalize on the demonstrations to frame them negatively in order to provoke racial tensions and attract voters. The opportunistic far-right’s leader Marine Le Pen condemned the riots as intolerable and unlawful, while justifying the police wrongdoings as an act of self-protection, despite all evidence to the contrary. Such divisive rhetoric, depicting Théo’s defenders as criminals, might become a strong asset for the French right and far-right, as the incident occurred amid the electoral campaign.

France, infamous for the denial of its racial problems, has made little progress toward combating the police conflicts that often arise from racially motivated identity checks and discrimination.

However, it would be difficult to fully grasp the tensions without understanding France’s much neglected colonial past. Increasingly, descendants of migrants from the formerly colonized African and North African countries have become main targets of racial profiling by the police. A clear distinction can be drawn between which ethnic groups are subject to policing: this particularly includes black and Arab minorities. During the 1960s, these practices were institutionally legitimized, as they were aimed at asserting authority and securing colonial hegemony. Racial profiling became a part of police conduct against people of different race or religion. Although contemporary racism cannot be solely attributed to the dark history, it is essential to note that it is an ever-evolving feature that resembles the system inherited from the past.

France’s past has left undeniable marks on the governance of minorities, which can be identified notably in the French suburbs. The French banlieues continuously suffer from social and economic inequality due to the limited access to quality education, housing, and employment opportunities. Citizens of African and Arab descent are constantly experiencing discrimination, but their misfortune is rather referred to the perceived unsuccessful integration, placing the burden of blame solely on them rather than the inhospitable conditions they are subjected to. The failure to adequately address the inequality gap leads to the feeling of alienation of many of the impoverished minorities. Despite Hollande’s commitment to eliminate the so-called délit de faciès (racial bias in police identity checks), the police’s ill-treatment prevails and continues to hinder further attempts to enhance social inclusion of France’s suburban communities. This reveals the pressing need for radical changes in the urban policy (politique de la ville) and a more effective societal cohesion in France.

The situation has escalated with the increased awareness of policing violence and support for racial equality.

Despite the media depiction of the protests, voicing opinion and taking actions publicly represent major steps in combating unfair treatment from the police and should not be regarded negatively. In fact, it is the silence that embodies a tacit culprit in racism.

Thus, exerting pressure on both the broader public and politicians is crucial for improving the current situation. When considering what could be done, the idea of community initiatives comes in as an appropriate measure. Particularly, the so-called community policing should be re-introduced to re-build trust between France’s ethnic communities and the police. During the 1990s, the police participated in various socializing events with the minority youths of the French suburbs, which significantly released the tension and had a positive impact on the perception of the police among the communities. Such projects could become the much needed instrument for improving the problematic relations and ultimately relaxing the social and political climate, thereby enabling conditions conducive to profound, long-term sustainable changes beneficial to the marginalized minorities first and foremost, but also to France in general.

Théo’s case is a part of a more complex issue deeply rooted in the colonial past. The current phenomenon of colorblindness dominates the French political discourse, which fundamentally contributes to the problem.

The country’s reluctance to acknowledge racial differences is demonstrative of a political culture that allows for abuse and discrimination, essentially by refusing to recognize that such problems are a result of denial of racial diversity in the first place.

France’s continuous demeanor toward race perpetuates systemic and institutional racism and provides the far-right with an ideal platform to enforce “divisionist” ideas. Théo’s incident has partially led to opening up to debate on race, which is an opportunity that progressives should grasp and not allow the far-right to seize. In the meantime, the question remains how many more incidents, like Theo’s, will happen before justice is reached?

Hoai Anh Le


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