As protests erupted across France over the death of a black man in police custody – and echoing the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA – the head of Paris police took to Twitter to make a statement.
Didier Lallement said: “There is no race in the police, nor racist or racist oppressors. There are civil servants who are committed to freedom, equality and fraternity on a daily basis!”
“Il n’y a pas de race dans la police, pas plus que de racisés ou d’oppresseurs racistes. Il y a des fonctionnaires qui s’engagent pour la liberté, l’égalité et la fraternité et cela au quotidien !” 1/2 pic.twitter.com/H7TFH6I4yy
— Préfecture de Police (@prefpolice) June 4, 2020
While a police chief denying racism among his officers is not unusual, the idea of there being “no race in the police” makes, for non-French eyes, surprising reading.
But it reflects the French state policy of being 'colour blind'.
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Fill out an official form in France, including the Census, and you will never be asked for your ethnicity or religion.
France likes to see itself as fundamentally different from others – perhaps especially the United States – because of this policy.
There's no hyphen after or before “French” when declaring your origin, officially no such thing as French-Moroccan, French-Algerian, French-American. All children of the Republic are French, full stop.
But the liberté, egalité and fraternité quoted by the police chief in his statement – the foundation principles of the French republic which are carved onto every public building in the country – have lately been claimed for a new meaning.
They have been carried on many signs at demonstrations decrying racism in French society and – in particular – among the police.
Protesters and police in Paris. Photo: AFP
When Leïla Khouiel first saw the signs and heard protesters singing the French national anthem La Marseillaise at the top of their lungs, she was slightly astonished.
A French journalist who has been covering police brutality and issues of racism in France for years, she would not immediately have guessed “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” to be the chosen slogans for this particular protest.
Then she saw the logic.
“The protesters are claiming their rights as equals in the French state,” she told The Local.
By placing the founding values of the French Republic “at the heart of the debate,” Khouiel said the protesters were reminding onlookers of what France was supposed represent: a country of equality, for all.
Currently, she said, that was not the case.
'A far-right problem'
“This idea of the French state as a nation of universal equality, it’s a myth,” said Julien Talpin, a sociologist and researcher at the French institute CNRS and author of the book “Bâillonner les quartiers” (Gagging the suburbs) which traces how the state has repressed mobilisation from these areas throughout the years.
“The French state has always distinguished between different populations, especially whites and non-whites,” he told The Local.
Denying institutional racism is an old tradition that can be traced back to the idea of a of France as a nation, he said.
“France is the country of human rights, so racism cannot exist,” Talpin said.
“Those who criticise the model risk being called communautariste, or even racist.”
Communautarisme is a pejorative French term for identity politics that is frequently used to brush off criticism of France's universalist policy.
“It’s unimaginable to us that there can be something like institutional racism. What a horrible idea!”
Today, Talpin explained, French perceive racism as an individual problem, largely concentrated in the far-right political party Rassemblement National (formerly Front National).
“But of course you can be behaving like a racist without being a racist,” he said, pointing to police identity checks as one example.
'Let us breathe'.
'Blinders are on'
Racism is a particularly inflammatory topic in France.
After France won the World Cup in 2018, the comedian Trevor Noah made a joke that Africa had won the World Cup – referring to the fact that most of the players on the French team had African origins.
Noah's comment caused a huge stir among the French.
Even the then French Ambassador to the US Gerard Araud got involved, sending Noah an indignant letter where he pointed to the national motto and explained that, “Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin.”
“By calling them an African team,” the ambassador wrote to Noah, ” you are denying their Frenchness.”
Over her 20 years living in France, African-American author Nita Wiggins has touched similar nerves several times.
Once, she asked a French white male journalist why he thought there were so many people of colour doing the least attractive jobs in the French capital – cleaning the trains, picking up trash, driving the refuse trucks.
“Before I could complete my question, he said, ‘you’re calling us racist! were not racist’,” Wiggins told The Local.
Back when she lived in the US, Wiggins wrote the book “Civil Rights Baby,” a story about race and covering sports in the US as a black journalist. Today she teaches journalism at the Paris-based school Ecole Supérieure du Journalisme where she pushes her students to strive for diversity in all their work.
“Is France colour-blind or just blind? I need to say that it looks more like blinders are on,” she said.
“I am still cautious about labelling. But I will not dismiss the demands of my brothers and sisters of the same colour,” she said.
Protesters in Nantes.
'We may be at a turning point'
Because of the official policy of colour blindness, there is no official data on the ethnic breakdown of offenders, or of how many people of colour are stopped and checked by the police.
There is not even an official number for how many Muslims live in France, a gap that some say allows far right groups to spread fears of native culture being 'swamped' by exaggerating the Muslim percentage of the population.
There is data available, of course, but these are independently gathered by journalists, researchers or NGOs.
Eric Fassin, a professor in sociology at the Paris 8 University, pointed to the justice system as part of the problem.
“When the police commit a crime they are very seldom prosecuted and very seldom sentenced. This kind of cover-up seems to be the logic of the institution,” he said.
Fassin said the important point was not how police perceived themselves, but whether the French population perceived them as racist or not.
“We don’t ask men, are you sexist? We ask women, have you experienced sexism?,” he said.
In 2006, Fassin co-edited a book about racial issues in French society, in which one chapter bore the title “Aveugles à la race ou au racisme ?” – “Blind to race or to racism?”.
Now, he said: “We may be at a turning point.”
Social media had made police brutality visible, he explained, along with the national 'yellow vest' protest movement, which had pushed brutality out from the banlieues – impoverished suburbs – and into the centre of Paris.
Current Interior Minister Christophe Castaner – a long-time adamant defender of French police forces – did not breech with tradition even as he on Monday promised a “zero tolerance” of racism in the police forces.
“I refuse to say that the institution is racist, but yes, there are racist police officers,” Castaner said, as he vowed to strike down hard on any rogue officers.
Protesters demanding 'Justice for Adama'.
During the interior minister’s speech, he promised more independence for IGPN, the institution designed to investigate cases where police are accused of having stepped out of the line during duty.
The government also scrapped the controversial 'chokehold' detainment police tactic and promised a better follow-up of allegations of racism in law-enforcement. President Emmanuel Macron even asked the justice minister to intervene directly into the Adama Traoré case (the family declined the offer).
For four years, the Traoré family fought a long string of judicial battles against the state to get insight into what really happened on the day he died.
Leïla Khouiel went to every single protest organised by the Traoré family. None of them were comparable to what she had seen over the past week, she said.
“Even white people, who aren’t themselves victims (of racism), are asking for change,” she said.
“For the first time, the power of the street is provoking changes.”