France gives a little over George Floyd
“That excruciating eight and a half minute long video of George Floyd's slow, gasping passage from life to oblivion has been a real spark that lit a prairie fire world-wide.”
The following item dropped into my email in-box just after 8pm on Friday 5 June. It came via a newsletter that arrives every hour or so from Franceinfo, the Radio France equivalent of BBC Radio 5. Take a read.
Sur les sept personnes majeures déférées au parquet de Paris après leur arrestation mardi 2 juin, dans la soirée, en marge de la manifestation contre les violences policières à Paris, une a été condamnée en comparution immédiate, jeudi 4 juin, à huit mois de prison avec mandat de dépôt pour violences sur personne dépositaire de l'autorité publique, a appris franceinfo de source judiciaire.
Let’s translate that so readers, who may not understand the French with its legal terms, fully grasp what is being said.
Of the seven adult people sent before the Paris magistrates after their arrest on Tuesday 2 June, in the evening, on the fringes of the Paris demonstration against police violence, one has been condemned in comparution immédiate on Thursday 4 June, to eight months in jail with an order for immediate imprisonment, for violence against a person holding public authority, franceinfo has learnt from a judicial source.
Comparution immédiate literally means “immediate appearance”. In practice what can happen is exactly that. An individual is scooped off the streets and before they know it are before a magistrate hearing the evidence against them and delivering the verdict. In theory, they have the right to a lawyer. In this case, the term meant “as quickly as possible”. The unnamed individual kicked their heels in the commissariat or the court cells for nearly 48 hours before they got their chance to hear their sentence.
In the context of COVID, these cases can be the very inverse of Lord Chief Justice Hewart’s remark a century ago that “it is not merely of some importance, but is of fundamental importance, that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done”.
Back in 2005 a French parliamentary inquiry headed that part of its report covering comparution immédiate: “A bad reputation not always merited”. Which is a mealy-mouthed way of saying that it often is. One lawyer’s description from 2018 intended to help those passing through the courts in this way, explained: “You have not been able to read your dossier . . . You have not been able to speak to those close to you, you have not been able to phone. You have been cut off from the world. You are wearing the same clothes as when you were arrested. No need to say that you have not been able to wash or make yourself presentable . . . You feel vulnerable.”
The parliamentary report noted that comparution immédiate “continues to provoke very negative reactions among the lawyers (we) met who judge it much more dangerous than CRPC” – French initials for the cases where the accused has pleaded guilty before appearing in court. “It is attacked as judicial case harvesting, serving to drive up the figures, leading to a standardised defence by young inexperienced lawyers [who] have little time to understand their brief (usually between 15 and 45 minutes).”
That “continues” has not lost its force fifteen years later. For the lawyer Michel Tubiana, the honorary president of the Ligue des droits de l’Homme, the French equivalent of Liberty, it remains a “very perverse procedure with little respect for justice. It is absolutely destructive of any rights for the accused.” As you might expect, he told me that, in his view, the prosecutors go for it “because it is good for their statistics”.
In the case concerned, what was the evidence brought against the individual? What was the supporting material that might confirm that evidence? Was there any film from one of the rarely used police body cameras? From static CCTV video recordings? Was there anything from witnesses other than that “person holding public authority”? Like the hundreds of Gilets jaunes who passed through comparution immédiate and into prison, they disappeared behind bars without the public knowing what they had actually done and on the say so of a police officer.
No prior announcement
But let us go back a bit. The Prefect, the government official in charge of police activity in each of France’s departments, had announced during the day on Tuesday that they were not authorising the evening protest in view of the health emergency under which gatherings of more than ten are banned. However, the Prefecture also claimed to journalists that not only had it received no prior announcement of the demo but that “the tone of the appeal to join the rally, shared on social networks, let one fear that there might be débordements (literally, overflowing or excesses) at a sensitive venue”.
At the end of a cheerful, but very angry, rally just four days later on Saturday 6 June in Paris, the police, kitted out like Star Wars troopers from head to toe, were pleasant enough. I watched as squads of them lined up shields, batons, launchers and gas canisters ready. But there was none of the gratuitous violence that had featured on June 2 when the police moved in to clear the streets and the towering, brand new 38-storey concrete and glass building for the main Paris courts got its first baptism from billowing clouds of tear gas. By June 6, all became a matter of politeness and calm directions.
For while thousands were out and about in the middle of Paris shouting their anger over racist police violence in the USA and France, there were exchanges under way between President Macron in the Elysée, just across the police lines from where we were standing, and his Justice and Interior Ministers. As often with Macron, he was out to stage a U-turn. The president was fly enough to see that something needed to give.
The president was fly enough to see that something needed to give.
Part of the reason why was contained in a question I could not help asking myself while watching those riot police out on a sunny Saturday afternoon: How many among them were party to the group of thousands of serving police officers who had been sharing racist and sexist insults and jokes over WhatsApp, whose existence the French public only learned about as the tear gas was drifting away from that monstrosity of a court building?
Racism and sexism, the persistent canteen culture of insults, sneers, harassment and put-downs, is there in all uniformed, male-dominated services, whatever the country concerned. Some on the right and in the services explain this away by saying that the police recruit from a society at large where these prejudices and behaviours are present, so some recruits are bound to bring those ideas into the organisation. Which is true, but very, very far from the whole story.
From Macron’s handshake contest with Donald Trump back when they were both new at the game to the slow, agonising, gasping passage from life to oblivion under the knee of a police officer in the USA or France, this is a world in which the virility of power and dominance over others is the ethos. French police are “les forces de l’ordre”. It is not a service to the community, but a tool of dominance in the hands of the State that requires submission to its authority. A process that in France, as in the US, is injected with a particular venom when the one who must submit is Black or Magrebin.
At the end of May, the very latest history of the police in France was there in a fancy wrapping for my birthday (that’s what you get for talking about police violence all the time). The four academic authors of the 650-page Histoire des polices en France finish by saying:
“The legitimacy of policing is put in question today, on the one hand, by the consequences of growing social and geographic inequalities that the police on their own cannot resolve, and, on the other hand, by practices which are felt to be not protective, but discriminatory or unfair by whole groups in the population, groups that are also those suffering most frequently from these inequalities.”
Their explanation of how France got to this point is rooted in the argument that three things have combined. First, there is the way the “war on drugs” has changed with the shift over some 40 years in the drugs used in France, how many use them and where they get them. Those parts of French society that consume the most are the better off and whiter groups. They are those subjected to the smallest number of “contrôles”, the French equivalent of stop and search.
For them, drugs have been effectively decriminalised. They buy their supplies from those at the other end of the trafficking networks, the reserve army of the young for whom school did not work and who have been faced over two decades with mass unemployment. These days, sales are not in those run-down streets of old city centres – they have largely all been gentrified – but in the poor suburban neighbourhoods where France’s ethnic minorities end up living.
Another element for them, as you might expect, is the terrorist attacks of the last decade. These have overstretched the police, even as their numbers were reduced, and have legitimised “the militarisation of public order” in the eyes of those who have the least to do with the police.
Their impact has been particularly strong because they came as the shift away from any sort of neighbourhood policing was well under way. This was a shift toward a policy of confrontation by rapid reaction teams relying on informers, CCTV evidence and their own observations of a community that, as outsiders, they feared and despised. The result has been all too reminiscent of what I watched the British Army doing in Catholic areas of Belfast or Derry in the 1970s, with the same consequence that the whole of a local community is brutalised and alienated.
The result has been all too reminiscent of what I watched the British Army doing in Catholic areas of Belfast or Derry in the 1970s.
The authors make that parallel even sharper. Out goes that talk half a century ago of saving a young generation from decadence at the hands of the drug dealers. In comes the terminology that became common in the 1990s, the “re-conquest” of “outlaw neighbourhoods” or “territory lost to the Republic”. As the authors note on the back of a detailed exploration of the colonial background within French policing (remember Algeria was seen by the French constitution not as a colony, but as part of France):
“One has to question what idea led to this choice of words when what is at issue is the establishment of units supposedly responsible for ‘greater contact with the public’. This vocabulary of ‘occupation’ and ‘pacification’ is marked by its imperial roots and reveals the gulf between the police forces and the inhabitants, a part of whom are inheritors of that colonial past.”
Kneeling on the neck
Using the excuse of that birthday and the easing of the French lockdown, we had been out enjoying the green of the countryside east of Paris for the first time since February. As rich fields of wheat, dense woods and flowering verges slipped by, Jacques Toubon, the soon to retire Défenseur de droits, France’s all-in-one ombudsman, came on the car radio to talk about that discriminatory police behaviour.
There was something deeply unreal about the beauty and peace all around us, broken only by late spring birdsong, and his calm retelling of the policing practice perpetrated across those poor suburban neighbourhoods. If you were young, male and Black or of North African origin you would be twenty times more likely to be stopped by the police than if you were white.
After hearing a statistic like that, you are not surprised that the journalists who brought the WhatsApp racist chat room to public attention were able to report the discovery of another such group at the same time that Macron had his ministers acting out his U-turn. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced with great ceremony some changes in practice. Officers would be banned from kneeling on the head or neck of a person they had forced to lie on the ground on their stomach. Where a suspicion of racist activity in the case of a police officer was supported by the facts, they would be suspended. Hardly earth-shattering, as both were already technically the case.
More worrying were the other things he said. He revealed that strangling neck holds in which police had been trained would now be banned, adding that he did not propose to change the rules on making suspects lie on the ground, belly down, as they were not being trained in this. And as to any idea of making the different internal police inspectorates independent, there was no need as France already had its version of that, Jacques Toubon, the Défenseur.
For those who cared to notice, it happened that Toubon was presenting his annual report on the same day. It contained sharp exposures of police racism and reported a rise in complaints of police behaviour. Toubon explained that out of the cases of police malpractice he had investigated in his five-year term of office, in 36 he had sent a file calling for action on the part of the Minister. Action had not followed in any of them.
The two main internal police inspectorates, one for the Police Nationale and the other for the Gendarmerie, issued their annual reports on the same day. The picture was also one of rising complaints against the police. As Macron could see, the mood of the public no longer one that would accept these things easily.
It has been a quick change. Just over a fortnight earlier, the singer and film star Camélia Jordana whose grandparents came from Algeria, had been on late night Saturday tv saying: “There are thousands of people who do not feel safe when faced with a police officer and I am one of them.” All hell broke loose when it came to those who had never felt the touch of a truncheon or the sour, insupportable, needling pain of tear gas in the nose, throat and eyes. Those who have, are among the many tens of thousands who have made her songs popular. They are among the third of respondents who in a recent survey said they, like Jordana, felt fear when in the presence of the police.
Her award winning album last year, Lost, reflected her remark that “I can’t do songs just to talk of my holidays or love affairs, even if I adore all of that.” One name that featured in the lyrics was that of Adama Traoré, the French equivalent of George Floyd, whose life was crushed out of him by the police in 2016. As George Floyd was dying, the police in Paris were putting about a new report from their own experts claiming that Adama Traoré had died because of chronic health conditions – nothing to do with any police action whatsoever.
“Justice takes time”
In reply to Jordana, the MP Eric Ciotti, a nasty terrier of France's right wing politics who usually vents his wrath over immigration, tabled a draft law that would make it a crime to distribute any film or photograph identifying a police officer committing a crime. That excruciating eight and a half minute long video of George Floyd's slow, gasping passage from life to oblivion has been a real spark that lit a prairie fire world-wide. Ciotti is a loyal firefighter committed to keeping us all in blasé ignorance and guarding control of the evidence in the hands of the police.
Ciotti is a loyal firefighter committed to keeping us all in blasé ignorance and guarding control of the evidence in the hands of the police.
He says he can see no evil in the activities of France’s police. In which case, why deny us the right to luxuriate of an evening on our sofas enjoying a little video or two revelling in best practice in policing grace à la République française?
As it turned out that the Castaner had known about the WhatsApp group back in January, he had to say something to explain why the officers had not been dealt with already. He offered his regrets. But an Interior Ministry spokesperson had given a different explanation that morning over the breakfast radio: “Justice takes time,” they said.
And so indeed it does. Unless you happen to be someone, not a police officer, caught up in débordements during a protest over the deaths of Black men under the knees of les forces de l’ordre. Then you can find yourself being whisked off to jail via comparution immédiate before you have even had a chance to catch a nap.
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