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It happens here too: As George Floyd outrage spreads, France confronts its own demons

The global outrage triggered by George Floyds killing in the US has reignited a debate about policing in Frances ethnically diverse suburbs, where protesters say it is time the country wakes up to its own culture of abuse and impunity.

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In years of rallying against racism and police brutality, Loom had never seen such a crowd before. All around him, flooding the area around the Paris courthouse, a sea of protesters rippled with anger and indignation, youthful faces covered in masks.

“What happened in the US happens here too, its the same oppression and injustice,” said the 38-year-old music producer, referring to the George Floyd killing that has sparked massive protests in the US and beyond.

He added: “The difference is that France pretends it doesnt happen.”

Defying police orders, some 20,000 people gathered outside the French capitals tribunal on Tuesday evening to protest against racism and impunity. Demonstrators voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter protests and demanded justice for Adama Traoré, a young black man who, like Floyd, died while in police custody in the Paris suburbs in 2016.

“This concerns all of us,” said Loom, who goes by the name he has chosen for his music company. “We want justice for the victims of police brutality and we want racism to be punished wherever it takes pace — all racisms, not just a select few.”

Huge crowds converged on the Paris courthouse in Paris calling for an end to police violence and impunity. © Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters

While expressing pride in the huge turnout, Loom was disappointed by the lack of journalists at the event, with foreign correspondents appearing to outnumber the French.

“Were always stigmatised as violent troublemakers, but wheres the press to report on this peaceful crowd?” he asked. “Trust me, theyll only appear if scuffles break out.”

I cant breathe

Minor clashes did break out later in the night, duly capturing much of the medias attention. The government voiced its outrage, warning that “violence has no place in democracy”. But those words will ring hollow to the youths from immigrant-rich suburbs who experience violence on an ordinary basis — and whose voices have so little space in French democracy.

Relations between police and residents have long been a fraught issue in Frances ethnically diverse suburbs, where men of African and North African origin complain about being routinely stopped and searched simply because of the colour of their skin.

A 2009 study by France's National Centre for Scientific Research showed that blacks were 11.5 times more likely to be checked by police than whites, and those of Arab origin seven times more likely. In a depressing cycle of violence and resentment, such routine checks can lead to violent altercations and eventually riots, an explosive cocktail that threatened to materialise during the countrys coronavirus lockdown when a policing incident triggered several nights of unrest in the French capitals deprived suburbs, known as the banlieue.

The chilling video of Floyds killing by a white police officer in Minneapolis has evoked comparisons with the case of 24-year-old Adama Traoré, whose death while in police custody in July 2016 sparked days of clashes in the suburbs. Two autopsies and four separate medical examinations have offered conflicting reasons for Traorés death, with his family maintaining that he suffocated under the weight of the three officers who used a controversial technique to restrain him.

Protesters hold up signs reading "Black Lives Matter", "Stop killing us" and "Justice for Adama".
Protesters hold up signs reading "Black Lives Matter", "Stop killing us" and "Justice for Adama". © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Outside the courthouse on Tuesday, many protesters carried signs reading “I cant breathe” — the last words spoken by both Floyd and Traoré.

“Today, its no longer the fight of the Traoré family — its your fight too,” Assa Traoré, Adama Traorés sister and one of the marchs key organizers, told the crowd. “Today, when we fight for George Floyd, we fight for Adama Traoré too.”

Vicious cycle

Hours before the protest, the Paris prefect announced he was banning the event on public health grounds — a move many protesters saw as further evidence of double standards.

“Even as we speak, the whole of Paris is out on bar terraces. None of them wear masks, wheres the social distancing?” asked Loom pointing towards the city centre, where large crowds enjoyed their first evening out after an 11-week lockdown.

“Look at our crowd instead: everyone wears a mask, everyone is careful,” he added, glossing over the marchers who left their masks flapping under their chin or carried none.

Several protesters highlighted the contrast between the urgency of their cause and the insouciant revelling just around the corner.

“The authorities are happy to open bars and shopping malls but they wont let us protest against racism and injustice,” said 17-year-old Anna Boisnot, who turned up with her friends despite their qualms regarding the coronavirus.

“Were worried of course, particularly for our parents. But we had to be here, we cant go on living in a world where only coloured people like us are harassed by the police,” said Marlene Meite, 16. “Racism is implanted in our society, its become banal, people dont even see it anymore,” added their friend Raphaël Bavioudy.

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The trio were heartened to see many white people in the crowd — like 29-year-old Maxime, who said he was “sick and tired of seeing the same cycle of violence, hatred and impunity again and again”.

“The vicious cycle just keeps on repeating itself,” said the Swiss-born photographer, who declined to give his full name. “Being white its often hard to see the racism, the discrimination that is so pervasive. And the more we get on in life, the less we are likely to see it, because we take such different paths from those who start at a disadvantage.”

Inégalité

Frances intersecting social and racial inequalities were once again exposed during the nationwide lockdown imposed in mid-March to stem the spread of Covid-19.

On the first day of confinement, the Seine-Saint-Denis department northeast of Paris – home to Frances poorest and most immigrant-rich districts – accounted for 10 percent of all fines handed out for breaching the lockdown despite comprising just over two percent of the countrys population. Over the subsequent weeks, videos of heavy-handed and racially-charged arrests circulated widely on French social media, prompting outrage and calls for revenge.

Healthwise, Seine-Saint-Denis also paid a disproportionately heavy price. The combination of large families in cramped quarters and a lack of doctors and hospital beds left the local population particularly exposed to the virus. And while many Parisians fled to countryside residences or switched to working from home, the capitals poorer suburbs supplied most of the frontline workers who kept the metropolis running.

But for Frances proudly egalitarian — and supposedly colour-blind — institutions, the racialised nature of such inequalities simply doesnt exist, neither as a statistic nor as a distinct social experience.

“All that talk of equality and fraternity, its bullshit,” said former journalist Divy Vasanth, slamming the authorities and the media for refusing to engage with minorities and acknowledge racial inequalities.

Vasanth pointed to the case of French singer and actress Camélia Jordana, who recently caused a storm by using the term “massacre” to talk of police violence in the suburbs, as indicative of a society that ignores people so long as they live in the banlieue and expects them to be grateful and “shut up” when they are successful.

“When Assa Traoré speaks, shes told to shut it because Read More – Source