France’s Assa Traore emerges as global figure in anti-racism movement

Until the death of her brother Adama in French police custody four years ago, Assa Traore had never been someone who campaigned for a cause.

France's Assa Traore emerges as global figure in anti-racism movement
Assa tirelessly demands "truth and justice" for Adama, who died in police custody in 2016 in a Paris suburb. Photos: AFP

Today, the 35-year-old mother of three is an international figure in the fight against police violence and racism, thrust into the heart of the debate by the death in Minneapolis last month of George Floyd.

And on Sunday, Assa Traore, who has been dubbed the French Angela Davis, will receive a BET award, a prize awarded by an American television channel to African-American or minority figures.

“A reward for everything we have done in four years and which gives us strength for the future,” Traore told AFP, dressed in her “Justice for Adama” t-shirt.

For four years, she has campaigned, organised demonstrations, spoken out publicly and given numerous interviews.

Supported by a solid “committee” of 20 relatives and activists, she tirelessly demands “truth and justice” for Adama, who died in police custody in 2016 in a Paris suburb.

Her “truth” is that her brother was “killed” by the police — but the investigation is still going on.

Having become a full-time activist, she never returned to her job as a community worker and lives with her three young children in an apartment on the outskirts of Paris.

For a long time, the “Adama fight” remained a local battle, unnoticed outside France. But the death of George Floyd has catapulted it into the global consciousness.

Thousands of people demonstrated in Paris in early June and hundreds of others took to the streets across France, inspiring a new generation.

“Assa, we're all fans of her with my friends. Girls in the neighbourhoods are getting politicised thanks to her,” said 24-year-old Samira, in Paris for her first demonstrations.

Committee member Youcef Brakni puts her on an even higher plane, saying that an Assa Traore comes around “once every 50 years!”

“It's like Simone de Beauvoir, Angela Davis, she smashed everything in her path,” he said, referring to the late French feminist writer and the US political activist.

“Now the average Frenchman knows her. When she walks on the street, people stop her.”

Assa's “fight” has taken flight with several American newspapers running profiles while music star Rihanna, who has over 84 million followers on Instagram, shared a post saluting the Frenchwoman.

“Black activism is built on a legacy of courageous people who fight injustice around the world,” said Rihanna.

The day after her brother's death, Assa Traore “naturally” became a spokesperson for the family, her older brother Lassana told AFP last year.

“She is a little bit like a mother who lost her son,” he added, because she “took care of her little brothers, took the family in her arms” after their father had died in 1999.

Their father, of Malian origin, had 17 children by four different women – two white and two black, creating what Assa calls a family of “all colours, all religions”.

Since 2016, her speech has become more political.

“In the name of my brother, I will change everything I can change,” she told AFP on Saturday.

This pushed her to lead a demonstration against the policy of President Emmanuel Macron in 2018, parading alongside the “yellow vests” and more recently with the caregivers.

In 2019, she co-wrote a book with the left-wing sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, won over by her “completely new way of speaking about society, racism, social classes”.

Actor Omar Sy and figures from the world of French rap have all become her supporters.

But Traore has also stirred controversy with calls for rebellion.

“In Africa, they will overthrow a president, they will enter palaces. It happens like that in Africa, why should it not happen like that in France? We are ready, we can make a beautiful revolution,” Le Figaro newspaper quoted her as saying during a 2018 protest.

Her appeal has circulated on a video on Twitter.

A senior police officer gave a more nuanced picture last year admitting with grudging admiration that Assa Traore “embodies cleverly an anti-system movement that lacked a charismatic standard-bearer”.

Since 2016, four of Traore's brothers have been imprisoned, some for violence that followed Adama's death, others for crimes unrelated to the case.

“She is a legend, but the facts are cruel,” added the police officer.

All are “political prisoners”, Assa insists. “They (the police) turned the Traores into soldiers in spite of themselves.”

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French court orders Twitter to reveal anti-hate speech efforts

A French court has ordered Twitter to give activists full access to all its documents relating to efforts to combat racism, sexism and other forms of hate speech on the social network.

French court orders Twitter to reveal anti-hate speech efforts
Photo: Alastair Pike | AFP

Six anti-discrimination groups had taken Twitter to court in France last year, accusing the US social media giant of “long-term and persistent” failures in blocking hateful comments from the site.

The Paris court ordered Twitter to grant the campaign groups full access to all documents relating to the company’s efforts to combat hate speech since May 2020. The ruling applies to Twitter’s global operation, not just France.

Twitter must hand over “all administrative, contractual, technical or commercial documents” detailing the resources it has assigned to fighting homophobic, racist and sexist discourse on the site, as well as “condoning crimes against humanity”.

The San Francisco-based company was given two months to comply with the ruling, which also said it must reveal how many moderators it employs in France to examine posts flagged as hateful, and data on the posts they process.

The ruling was welcomed by the Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF), one of the groups that had taken the social media giant to court.

“Twitter will finally have to take responsibility, stop equivocating and put ethics before profit and international expansion,” the UEJF said in a statement on its website.

Twitter’s hateful conduct policy bans users from promoting violence, or threatening or attacking people based on their race, religion, gender identity or disability, among other forms of discrimination.

Like other social media businesses it allows users to report posts they believe are hateful, and employs moderators to vet the content.

But anti-discrimination groups have long complained that holes in the policy allow hateful comments to stay online in many cases.

French prosecutors on Tuesday said they have opened an investigation into a wave of racist comments posted on Twitter aimed at members of the country’s national football team.

The comments, notably targeting Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe, were posted after France was eliminated from the Euro 2020 tournament last week.

France has also been having a wider public debate over how to balance the right to free speech with preventing hate speech, in the wake of the controversial case of a teenager known as Mila.

The 18-year-old sparked a furore last year when her videos, criticising Islam in vulgar terms, went viral on social media.

Thirteen people are on trial accused of subjecting her to such vicious harassment that she was forced to leave school and was placed under police protection.

While President Emmanuel Macron is among those who have defended her right to blaspheme, left-wing critics say her original remarks amounted to hate speech against Muslims.