In Britain a slaver’s statue has toppled. In France a great taboo has fallen.
French media and politicians have been forced to confront a long-evaded question: “Are French police racist?”
Here is my own answer, based on many visits to the multi-racial banlieues (suburbs) over the years. Yes, some – not all – French police are racist. The Police Nationale are, in my opinion, worse than the Gendarmerie.
That may be an unfair comparison. Gendarmes mostly operate in towns and rural areas. They are less exposed to the violence, crime and racial complexities of France’s cities and troubled inner suburbs.
To understand the failures, difficulties and dangers of policing in the banlieue, you should watch – or rewatch – the film Les Misérables which won the César for best movie in February. The film is frank about police attitudes to racial minorities. It is also honest about the near impossible task that the police face.
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In my visits to the Paris banlieues after the riots of 2005, I was sometimes helped and guided by a young film-maker called Ladj Ly. We spoke to dozens of kids of African and North African origin about the systematic harassment and violence that they received from police.
There were also many people that we couldn’t speak to – gangs of young, and not so young, men standing at the foot of tower blocks. “Trop compliqué,” Ladj would say.
Fifteen years later, nothing much has changed – except that Ladj Ly is the much-decorated director of Les Misérables.
Several events in recent days have combined to force France to face up to the deeply embedded racism in its own forces of law and order – not institutional racism but something uncomfortably close to it.
Soon after George Floyd’s death at police hands in Minneapolis, new evidence emerged to cast doubts on the death of a young, French black man as he resisted arrest in Val d’Oise north of Paris in July 2016.
Adama Traore’s death, the evidence suggested, may have been caused by the method – plaquage ventral or “prone restraint” – used by gendarmes to immobilise him.
It also emerged that two large Facebook groups, reserved for French police and gendarmes, seethed with brutally racist messages and insults. Over 17,000 people belong to those two groups. That amounts to about one in 15 of all French law enforcement officers.
Separately, six police officers in Rouen were suspended after they were found to have exchanged racist and white-supremacist messages online about a black colleague.
The death of Traore, 24, is NOT a clear cut case of police brutality – unlike the callous, videoed killing of George Floyd. A previously largely ignored campaign by his family to have his case re-opened attracted over 20,000 people to a demonstration outside the Palais de Justice in Paris last week.
Many of those people were sincere in their demands for a reopening of the Traore case and a change in official attitudes towards cases of racism in the police. They were joined by the usual suspects of the hard and ultra-left who want to embarrass the government or destroy “the system”.
A black CRS (riot police) officer was insulted by both black and white demonstrators and called a vendu – a sell-out. To suggest that no black person should be a police officer and all black people should hate the police is also a form of racism. The President of SOS-Racisme, Dominique Sopo, refused to criticise this stupid and counter-productive attack.
In other words, France’s long overdue debate about racism in the police threatens to become hysterically divided along political-tribal lines – like almost everything else these days.
President Emmanuel Macron and the rest of the government are evidently embarrassed at having to face such questions in the context of George Floyd’s death. They would much rather have tut-tutted about the iniquities of race relations in America.
Macron reminded the interior minister Christopher Castaner on Sunday that he had asked him in January to “make proposals to improve the professional ethics of the forces of order”.
Several measures were hurriedly announced by Castaner the following day. Some are welcome – including more independence for the internal agencies which investigate police and gendarmerie wrong-doing (known as the “beef and carrots”).
Castaner said that the étranglement, or neck hold, method of immobilising suspects was now banned. He said nothing about the “prone restraint” used on Adama Traore.
But one of the policy changes he announced is foolish.
In future, he said, all officers who face “authentic suspicions” (soupçons averés) of racist behaviour must be suspended immediately. What on earth is an “authentic suspicion”? Such a policy is an invitation to false accusation, which will further complicate policing and worsen police and community relations in the banlieues.
On the other hand, the reaction of the centre-right and far-right opposition politicians was typically short-sighted and pig-headed. They said Castaner was taking the side of “criminals” against the law – equivalent to suggesting that all crime is committed by non-whites.
Jordan Bardella, the new fresh face of the Rassemblement National, accused the government of surrendering to “indigenist” (ie pro-black and brown) forces, Christian Jacob of the centre right Républicains said that all allegations of police violence in France were a “lie” and that “racist police in France…do not exist.”
That is precisely the see-no-evil attitude taken by successive French governments which has allowed racist behaviour to survive in the police – and to a lesser extent in the gendarmerie. It was anger at years of police harassment and discrimination, triggered by callous police behaviour which led to the death of two teenage boys, which caused the riots which swept through the banlieues of all French cities in 2005.
A much bigger and more honest debate is needed on all sides – including a recognition of the dangers and difficulties faced by the police; including a recognition that police recruitment and training in France should be overhauled. There should also be higher police pay across the board and a new drive to diversify the ranks – especially the senior ranks – of police and gendarmerie.
France claims to be a Republic founded on values. It cannot sustain that claim if some members of the forces who defend the Republic insult those values online and trample them in public.