France has ignored racist police violence for decades. This uprising is the price of that denial

The killing of 17-year-old Nahel shows how little has changed since the deaths of two teenagers fleeing police in 2005

France Protest

Since the video went viral of the brutal killing by a police officer of Nahel, a 17-year-old shot dead at point-blank range, the streets and housing estates of many poorer French neighbourhoods have been in a state of open revolt. “France faces George Floyd moment,” I read in the international media, as if we were suddenly waking up to the issue of racist police violence. This naive comparison itself reflects a denial of the systemic racist violence that for decades has been inherent to French policing.

I first became involved in antiracist campaigning after a 2005 event that had many parallels with the killing of Nahel. Three teenagers aged between 15 and 17 were heading home one afternoon after playing football with friends when they were suddenly pursued by police. Although they had done nothing wrong (and this was confirmed by a subsequent inquiry) these terrified youngsters, these children, hid from the police in an electricity substation. Two of them, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted. The third, Muhittin Altun, suffered appalling burns and life-changing injuries.

Those boys could have been my little brothers, or my younger cousins. I remember the sense of incredulity: how could they simply lose their lives to such terrible injustice? “If they go in there [to the power plant], I don’t fancy their chances of making it” were the chilling words spoken by one of the police officers as he watched this horrific event play out.

France was ablaze for weeks with the rioting that followed – the worst in years. But just as now, with the death of Nahel, the initial media and political reaction in 2005 was to criminalise the victims, to scrutinise their past, as if any of it could justify their atrocious deaths. As if responsibility for their tragedy lay in their own hands. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was interior minister at the time, sullied the memory of young people whose fear had led to their death with the remark: “If you have nothing to hide, you don’t run when you see the police.”

The numbers of cases of police brutality grow relentlessly every year. In France, according to the Defender of Rights, young men perceived to be black or of north African origin are 20 times more likely to be subjected to police identity checks than the rest of the population. The same institution denounced the absence of any appeal against being checked as a form of systemic police discrimination. Why would we not feel scared of the police?

In 1999, our country, the supposed birthplace of human rights, was condemned by the European court of human rights for torture, following the sexual abuse by police of a young man of north African origin. In 2012 Human Rights Watch said: “the identity check system is open to abuse by the French police … These abuses include repeated checks – “countless”, in the words of most interviewees – sometimes involving physical and verbal abuse.” Now, after the death of Nahel, a UN rights body has urged France to address “profound problems of racism and racial discrimination” within its law enforcement agencies.

Even our own courts have condemned the French state for “gross negligence”, ruling in 2016 that “the practice of racial profiling was a daily reality in France denounced by all international, European, and domestic institutions and that for all that, despite commitments made by the French authorities at the highest level, this finding had not led to any positive measures”. More recently, in December 2022, the UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination denounced both the racist discourse of politicians and police ID checks “disproportionately targeting certain minorities”.

Despite such overwhelming findings, our president, Emmanuel Macron, still considers the use of the term “police violence” to be unacceptable. This time, Macron has unequivocally condemned an act that he called “unacceptable” – which is significant. Yet I fear that the focus is being placed on an individual police officer instead of questioning entrenched attitudes and structures within the police that are perpetuating racism. And not a single one of the damning reports and rulings has led to any meaningful reform of the police as an institution.

Worse, a law passed in 2017 has made it easier for police to resort to the use of firearms. Officers can now shoot without even having to justify it on the grounds of self-defence. Since this change in the law, according to the researcher Sebastian Roché, the number of fatal shootings against moving vehicles has increased fivefold. Last year, 13 people were shot dead in their vehicles.

Nahel’s death is another chapter in a long and traumatic story. Whatever our age, many of us French who are descended from postcolonial immigration carry within us this fear combined with rage, the result of decades of accumulated injustice. This year, we commemorate the 40th anniversary of a seminal event. In 1983, Toumi Djaïdja, a 19-year-old from a Lyon banlieue, became the victim of police violence that left him in a coma for two weeks. This was the genesis of the March for Equality and Against Racism, the first antiracist demonstration on a national scale, in which 100,000 people took part.

For 40 years this movement has not stopped calling out the violence we see targeted at working-class neighbourhoods and more broadly black people and people of north African origin. The crimes of the police are at the root of many of the uprisings in France’s most impoverished urban areas, and it is these crimes that must be condemned first. After years of marches, petitions, open letters and public requests, a disaffected youth finds no other way to be heard than by rioting. It is difficult to avoid asking if, without so many uprisings in cities across France, Nahel’s death would have garnered the attention it has. And as Martin Luther King rightly said: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Rokhaya Diallo is a writer, journalist, film director and activist

Originally published in : Europe Solidaire


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