Police Brutality is Not Uniquely American: Try France

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Tens of thousands demonstrate in Paris on June 6, 2020, in solidarity with US George Floyd protests

While we are rightly preoccupied with abuse by the police in the United States, almost no Americans know anything about policing and justice in other countries. France offers a particularly interesting case. In January, six nongovernmental organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, used a French legal provision to put the government on notice for racially discriminatory identity checks, a practice which they found “widespread” and “deeply rooted.” In June, the Council of Europe expressed “extreme concern” about conditions in French police stations and prisons after a report by its Committee for the Prevention of Torture, based on a December, 2019 visit, showed beatings, racist and homophobic insults, overcrowding, use of solitary confinement, and lack of psychiatric care in some cases.

On July 22 and 23, the French legislature passed two security bills, one on preventing terrorism, and one against “separatism” and to bolster “respect for the principles of the Republic.” The new laws, subject to review by the Constitutional Court—which in April struck down a previous version—are the state’s response to popular and police protests since George Floyd demonstrations spread from the US to France just over a year ago, but also build on longer-term trends of police violence and racial profiling, and protests against them, on the one hand; and the escalation of official and media rhetoric around security, Islam, terrorism, and immigration on the other.

The case of Adama Trouré, who died in a Paris suburb in 2016 after being pinned down by police, was most on the lips of the tens of thousands of Parisians who took to the streets in solidarity with the US mobilization. But many other deaths and abuses, such as that of Cédric Chouviat—a delivery driver who died after a police chokehold and yelling that he couldn’t breathe in January, 2020—show it was not an isolated incident. The police held their own protest against charges of brutality, which succeeded in watering down government proposals to restrict chokeholds and weed out racists from their ranks. The context changed with several terrorist attacks in the fall, including one in which a policewoman was stabbed to death and her colleague injured. President Emmanuel Macron then announced plans for an “anti-separatism” bill, including a proposal to break up or ban organizations like the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) (although the proposal is not in the final law, the CCIF has since dissolved and reincorporated outside the country).

The “Justice for Adama” movement is a French counterpart to Black Lives Matter. Traoré is pictured on the mural

More large popular demonstrations opposed a provision to ban private videotaping of police, pushed by police unions. In December, Black rap music producer Michel Zecler was beaten in his own business after being accosted on his way in by police for not wearing a mask. The police denied any misconduct, but the incident was caught on his studio’s security cameras, and the release of the footage caused an uproar that forced the withdrawal and rewriting of that part of the bill. (Although Macron has acknowledged that Black and brown citizens are subject to discriminatory stops and treatment, and expressed a desire to enforce use of police body cameras by the end of his term, video of violent police encounters is much less likely to exist and be seen in France than in the US.) Police again protested in May, demanding tougher laws against harming officers and stiffer sentences for crimes in general; provisions in the newest version against “endangering” police still leave room for such suppression.

The government extended its campaign against “separatism,” to academia, citing the specter of a longstanding bugaboo of the extreme Right, “Islamo-leftism.” Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal in February declared her intention to launch an investigation into the supposed trend in French universities. Pushback was immediate and widespread, with many denouncing the ”witch hunt.” But like the right-wing campaign against the supposed ascendance of Critical Race Theory in US education, attempts to police educators in France form the wedge of a political offensive: in France’s case, in the name of an extreme view of Republican values that shuns any diversity or divisions among citizens.

Most commentators attribute Macron’s turn to the right on security and cultural matters to an attempt to gain reelection early next year by winning over potential supporters of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in an expected runoff: he assumes that supporters of the Left will hold their noses and vote for him as the lesser evil. But this analysis ignores a longer history of police violence, serving both racial oppression and the domination of the state—not to mention the (racial) colonial order abroad.

The behavior of the French police during World War II was ignominious. After the French surrendered to Germany in June, 1940, the country was divided into two sections. In the north, the Nazis ran the country themselves. In the south, they permitted the collaborationist government of Maréchal (General) Philippe Petain to administer the territory from the city of Vichy.

In both regions, the French police collaborated with the Germans in sending Jews to the death camps. The roundups began in 1940 after an anti-Jewish law was passed. It applied to both the northern and southern section. The first victims were Jewish refugees from other countries. Over 40,000 of them were held in camps under the control of the French. Then the arrests were extended to French Jews. French police participated in the roundups, the detention in holding camps in France, and the deportations to the death camps in Eastern Europe. Some of these were among the first Jews to be exterminated at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. In total, approximately 77,000 Jews were deported to their deaths from France with the active complicity of the French police. Ironically, Benito Mussolini, whose fascist Italian troops occupied a small slice of Southeastern France, resisted German pressure on his police to join in the deadly antisemitic behavior.

René Bousquet (on left) with other officers during World War II

The antisemitic crimes of the French police faded from the French memory until they were revealed again by Serge Klarsfeld, a Jewish French lawyer, and his wife Beate, starting in the 1970s. Socialist President François Mitterrand tried to sweep the French complicity under the rug. He had a very tarnished history, both as a decorated servant of the Vichy Government, and as interior and justice minister in the 1950s, when the Algerian nationalist movements were being ruthlessly repressed, often with the use of torture. As president, Mitterrand associated himself with the Vichy police chief René Bousquet, who had organized the roundup of Jews in both zones. Mitterrand defended his association with Bousquet on the grounds that Bousquet had been acquitted by a 1944 court of “compromising the national defense.” This was well before Klarsfeld revealed the full extent of Bousquet’s role in the Nazi genocide. But Mitterrand held his ground and saw no necessity for further action against Bousquet, who was ultimately assassinated. Even the conservative president who followed Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac, condemned the Vichy regime as a criminal operation; the Catholic Church asked for forgiveness for failing to protect the Jews.

The second major event in which the French police managed to tarnish their reputation was the student revolt and general strike of 1968 (See Belden’s article “The 1968 Revolt in France” in the June, 2018 Public i.). The spark that lit the revolt was a new education law that, among other things, forbade male-female visits in university dorms. The back story to it was the animosity of President de Gaulle toward the French student union (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France or UNEF) for its previous position against the war and torture in Algeria. Algeria won its independence in 1962, but the animosity continued, with the government following punitive policies toward UNEF.

Satirical poster against President de Gaulle’s policing policies. French text reads “Always vote. I’ll do the rest”

While the spark began at the Nanterre suburban campus, it quickly spread to the Latin Quarter. When the police tried to block off student demonstrations, the students erected barricades of their own. The police tried to destroy those barricades, but the students fought back. The police used tear gas and stun grenades. The students dug up bricks from the street and threw them at the police. The battles lasted through May and June. Woe to any young person who happened to fall into the clutches of the police those nights. “Instant justice” administrated on the streets and in the police stations, and even a high school student forced into the Seine river in which he drowned, led to the equation of the riot police (CRS) with the Nazis in the slogan “CRS/SS.”

Center and establishment Right politics, since at least the first anti-hejab measures in the early ’90s, have featured the manipulation of security fears and Islamophobia, even as rates of violent crime have steadily declined. The Yellow Vest protesters of 2019 (see Richard’s article in the April, 2019 Public i) were mostly white, but they were met with astonishing state violence and repression—hundreds were injured, many maimed permanently (despite thousands of recorded violent actions, only seven officers were convicted of an offense, all given suspended sentences and kept in their jobs), and over ten thousand arrested, hundreds of whom are still in jail. (These protesters differed from the ’68 students in being mostly older and from the lower-middle class.) This shows that the creeping police state serves class as well as racial suppression, in the service of Macron’s neoliberal project. The exclusion of Muslim and other French citizens of color through the rhetoric of “separatism” and the “defense of the Republic,” as represented by the new security bills, and the resistance to reforming violence and racism in the police, abetted by police unions, is all of a piece.

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