In the centre of Paris, a young man clambered up next to a statue representing the French republic and ignited a flare, sending clouds of symbolic black smoke across hundreds of demonstrators taking the knee in protest at the death of black American George Floyd in the US — and that of Adama Traoré in France four years earlier.
The fates of both men have become fused in demonstrations attracting tens of thousands of people in Paris and other cities across France.
“The death in the US has touched us here too and we all have our own stories,” said Laura, a young mother of two living in the French capital who was one of the protesters in the Place de la République on Wednesday. “I have to face daily racism all the time and that has to change.”
Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minnesota has resonated particularly powerfully in France, which has grappled for years with the twin problems of racism and police violence in suppressing demonstrations, including the anti-government gilets jaunes protests of 2018-19.
Recent years have seen increased scrutiny of police tactics. Judicial investigations of the police increased by 23.7 per cent in 2019, compared with the year before. Of the 1,460 investigations in 2019 more than half were due to allegations of violence, according to the police regulator.
Widespread revulsion at crowd-control tactics — including the use of so-called flashball riot weapons — has cast a shadow over Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.
Traoré died in 2016 in a town north of Paris after being chased and immobilised by police who tried to question him and his brother, triggering angry protests at the time. The outpouring of popular anger at Floyd’s killing has in turn given renewed prominence to La Vérité pour Adama (Truth for Adama), an organisation led by his sister Assa, who has challenged the official version of events surrounding her brother’s death.
Despite multiple autopsies, there is still no agreement as to whether Traoré died because of the way he was restrained or because of an underlying health condition.
His family remain adamant and compare his death to Floyd’s. “They died in exactly the same way,” Ms Traoré told Reuters. “Adama carried the weight of three officers on his body.”
She and other campaigners hope this latest popular mobilisation will help to change the way the French police operate — particularly the disproportionate targeting of people of African and Arab descent for identity checks on the street.
Lova Rinel, vice-president of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France (Cran), likens the new awareness of racism in France to the recent protests about the sexual abuse of women by powerful men following the arrest of film producer Harvey Weinstein in the US.
“In the 1960s, it was politicians and intellectuals who made their voices heard. In the 1980s and 1990s there were big anti-racism movements,” said Ms Rinel. “Now it’s the families of the victims who are talking.”
Mr Macron, his prime minister Edouard Philippe and interior minister Christophe Castaner have cautiously joined the debate, condemning racism and insisting it will not be tolerated, but at the same denying the existence of a systemic problem in the police or the gendarmerie.
Sibeth Ndiaye, a government spokesperson, said Mr Macron told a cabinet meeting this week that racism and discrimination “were a plague and a betrayal of republican universalism” that demanded firm action.
Mr Castaner has already angered police unions by announcing an end to the use of a stranglehold around the neck to detain suspects, although pinning people to the ground on their stomachs is still permitted.
Ms Ndiaye has also said that she does “not believe that the French police is racist in an organised way”. However, rightwing politicians accuse ministers of betraying ordinary officers.
Marion Maréchal, niece of the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, criticised the government this week for yielding to pressure from leftwing campaigners. In a video message she refused to apologise “as a white person or as a French person” for the death of either Floyd in the US or of the “petty criminal” Traoré.
Pressure for police reform is building nevertheless, with another large demonstration called by La Vérité pour Adama on Saturday.
Campaigners advocate a range of measures. First, that police should provide an official receipt to those whose identities they check to limit abuses. One report for French senators showed Africans were six times and Arabs eight times as likely as whites to be asked for an identity document on the street.
Second, they recommend that the IGPN, the inspection service that monitors the police force, should be separated from the interior ministry. Third, they call for police training to be improved and the use of dangerous riot-control weapons to be curtailed.
“This is the worst crisis for the French police that I have seen,” said Sebastian Roché, a sociologist specialising in the police.
Some critics believe that attempts at reform are hampered by laws which prohibit the gathering directly by the state of data on French citizens’ ethnic or racial origins. But Mr Roché observed that the interior ministry had previously commissioned a report on the ethnic composition of the police force from INED, a demographic research institute. (The report was never published.)
Esther Benbassa, a senator for the environmental party EELV, noted that repeated identity checks humiliate the young and foment resentment. “It’s not that all police are racist,” she said. “The state is not racist. But there is some systemic racism in the institutions, including the police, and when it’s in the police it becomes visible.”
Many, though, fear nothing will change. North of Paris in Beaumont-sur-Oise, the town where Traoré died, François, a 30-year-old welder born in France but raised in Senegal, said he was not optimistic.
“It’s been like this for years in France . . . Yes, what happened with George Floyd has started the protests all again, but things aren’t going to change, as usual.”