Can Europe Make It?

When policing becomes political: lessons from France’s gilets jaunes

In America, police brutality is a partisan divider, while in France it could be a political bridge.

Chayma Drira Henry Shah
30 July 2019
Thousands gathered on the Champs-Elysees as tear gas and rubber bullets used to disperse demonstrators. Paris, December, 2018.
Thousands gathered on the Champs-Elysees as tear gas and rubber bullets used to disperse demonstrators. Paris, December, 2018.
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Jan Schmidt-Whitley/PA. All rights reserved.

Over 2000 injuries caused by the police, over 100 of them serious. 15 demonstrators and journalists have lost an eye due to the use of “less-than-lethal” bullets. A young confidant close to the president and ruling party is under investigation for abuse of power after he assaulted protesters last summer.

The government denies any use of excessive force, and allows its security services to continue to use explosive grenades to control unruly demonstrations, unlike their peers throughout the continent. This is not a dispatch about a dictatorship. This news comes from France, a country led not by an ailing autocrat, but the spry Emmanuel Macron, hailed as a “potent force,” maybe even “Europe’s saviour” only 18 months ago. The ongoing gilets jaunes, yellow vest, movement has brought attention to the problem of police violence in France.

Since 1968

True such violence, especially against protesters in the capital, is nothing new. 2018 marked 50 years since 1968, a year of social upheaval in France and elsewhere. The canonical images from that May feature bright-faced students building barricades, throwing pavestones, and pasting posters in the heart of Paris’ scholarly Latin Quarter. Their youthful exuberance contrasts with the dour orderly rows of riot police. But more recent episodes have lacked the same social impact, and haven’t led to calls to rein in police power.

2018 marked 50 years since 1968, a year of social upheaval in France and elsewhere.

In 2005, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy labeled protesters as “scum” during a tumultuous 3-week period of riots following the electrocution of 2 young men during a police chase, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, of immigrant descent. And in 2015, violent clashes at the COP21 climate summit elicited condemnation from both the government and activists – the consensus being that the demonstrators went too far. Unlike both the movements of 1968 or now the gilets jaunes, these confrontations didn’t prompt a political discussion, even when, as Chicago protesters chanted in 1968, “the world is watching.”

Fervent debate

So what makes the current conflict with the gilets jaunes different? Why is police and protester violence no longer a routine question of law-and-order, but a topic of fervent debate? Does the French situation compare to the American case, where groups like Black Lives Matter have made police brutality a central concern? Are there conclusions to be drawn about political futures for people of color and popular movements on both sides of the Atlantic?

Compare the French to the American case, where the Census Bureau divides the population into five general, and many more specific racial categories, where the 1964 Voting Rights Act specifically used racial data to expand access to democracy and right historical wrongs. In France, historically, issues like police violence and racial discrimination have simply been pushed out of the conversation. France clings to a colour-blind model. No racial, ethnic or religious data can be collected in a census or used to inform policy. Members of the media and public rarely use such categories, if at all. In France, the then-legislator Christiane Taubira was the first to officially commemorate the violence of slavery – in 2001. It took until 2012 for President François Hollande to recognize the October 1961 massacre, in which the Paris police shot and then dumped Algerian colonial citizens into the Seine.

Such delayed memory blocks understanding of a long pattern of violence against immigrants and their descendents. But violent exclusion isn’t a thing of the past. France is slowly coming to terms with its racialized present. Ethnic minorities are far more likely than others to be subjected to profiling and not-so-random stops by the police. An OECD study found that social inequality negatively affected students in France more heavily than all 72 other countries surveyed. Children of immigrants did far worse than their peers with French-nationality parents.

Discrimination is also intimate. The IFOP, France’s official opinion polling body, foundthat 62% of straight Parisian women would not consider dating a man from Sub-Saharan Africa, 57% a man from the Arab world. One in three wouldn’t go out with someone, anyone, from Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburban district known for poverty, crime, and a high proportion of immigrants.

Protesters avoiding police fire, Paris, January, 2019.
Protesters avoiding police fire, Paris, January, 2019. | Samuel Boivin /PA. All rights reserved.

Tragic rhythm

Two recent tragedies have raised the profile of police violence against people of color. In 2016, Adama Traoré (no family relation to Bouna) was found dead in police custody on his 24th birthday. A few months later and a few miles south, police officers beat up, arrested, and then raped Théodore “Théo” Luhaka as he conducted youth outreach in his neighborhood. The immediate aftermath followed a familiar script: young people protested, some burned cars, the media cast violent images as proof of the dominance of casseurs, hooligans. The centre called for calm and dialogue, and the right called for control and doubling-down of police intervention. The police cracked down.

This rhythm resonates with events here in the United States. Like Traoré, Eric Garner’s murder by asphyxiation became a symbol for those populations struggling for air under a suffocating atmosphere of poverty and violences. Like Luhaka, Freddie Gray’s suffering was at once normal and notable, a regular occurence that went further than other examples of a repeated, and repeatedly violent, routine. A journalist from Slate declared that Adama Traoré’s death “has become France’s Ferguson.” The rallying cry in the streets: “hands up, don’t shoot,” following the murder of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. Today in France, it’s à genoux, “on your knees.”

Today in France, it’s à genoux, “on your knees.”

Law-and-order

In America, police brutality is a partisan divider, while in France it could be a political bridge. “Blue lives matter” is not just a reaction from police officers, but a central concern of Republican voters and lawmakers. Although President Donald Trump denounces the federal law enforcement agency investigating his associations, policy circles identify his consistent support for the police. The President’s Justice Department has halted, slowed, or threatened Obama-era moves to rein in abusive police departments.

In the United States, the right frames police brutality as a question of respect for law-and-order, skirting past centuries of impunity for those who inflict suffering on people of colour. Given the racialized polarization of American politics, it’s to be expected that the issue has not appealed to the overwhelmingly white base of the Republican Party. The right succeeds in casting resistance to police power as opposition to community safety and national security. If you’re against the wall, you’re for terrorism, and you’re against national security. If you question law enforcement’s expansive, expensive, and militarized mandate, you’re against the police. To be for black lives is to be against blue lives.

In France, the police’s own investigatory body has already opened up 78 investigations since the start of the yellow vest movement. Members of the non-partisan National Union of Journalists have publicly denounced the “inadmissible exercise of police force,” and members have filed at least 24 formal complaints. Although groups like the Marche des beurshave been working in communities of color since 1983 without broad recognition, white left-wing, and even centrist or non-partisan gilet jaune activists are now joining in to demonstrate against excessive uses of force.

In France, the gilets jaunes have shown that police power isn’t about choosing sides between the police and everyone else. Police power is also about freedom of full expression. The national government declared a state of emergency following a wave of horrific attacks in 2015. Officials used emergency powers at their discretion, not only to secure France’s public spaces, but to block public protest.

Attacks on identified journalists during the gilet jaune protests prevent the press’ full access to information. Before opening up a national dialogue, President Macron’s spokespeople encouraged the gilets jaunes to “just go home.” When people of color protest against police violence in their communities, they’re met with overwhelming force. The press in Ferguson documented the extensive and spectacular use of military surplus weapons on American streets. The riot police greeted protests in Seine-Saint-Denis following the death of Théo Luhaka with tear gas and specialized brigades with high-tech equipment.

These gestures compound existing dissatisfaction with politics as it stands. A national survey showed that in the 2017 elections, 31% of French voters “totally rejected” both President Macron and competitor Marine Le Pen. Another 28% found that neither candidate “was a good fit” with their views.

A ''march of the mutilated'' will bring together demonstrators denouncing weapons used by police, June, 2019.
A ''march of the mutilated'' will bring together demonstrators denouncing weapons used by police, June, 2019. | Sadak Souici/PA. All rights reserved.

The other France

In communities of color like Seine-Saint-Denis, where 21% of the 2011 population were foreigners, many can’t even vote. The tactics of the so-called “war on terrorism” often intensify what some voices call a “war” on criminality in the brown and black suburbs – ”random” stops, home raids, constant police presence. These tactics prevent young children of immigrants, many of them now citizens, from feeling like they are a part of France’s rich political tradition.

They are not part of the mainstream, but of the “other France.” The same can be said of the gilets jaunes, a movement that has emerged from the rural periphery and small cities. People of French origin from the provinces, like people of colour only a few miles from the Louvre, are not often seen on Parisian boulevards, let alone speaking on national TV.

The emerging consensus around police violence shows that the crisis in democracy is also a crisis in dignity and decency. It’s no coincidence that the gilets jauneshave not confined themselves to traditional sites of popular demonstration, but have gone directly to the heart of power: the Champs-Elysées, home neighbourhood of international luxury stores, President Macron, and private clubs for the super-rich.

One prescient observer noted in December that the gilets jaunes have been cast as “stone-throwing, shop-smashing rabble.” This depiction is not foreign to young people of color in the banlieue, whose uprisings have been relentlessly characterized as “rioting and burning” rather than political speech.

Yes, victims of police brutality are often black and brown, but the gilets jaunes movement shows that, when the rich and powerful are threatened, police violence turns to outsiders from the province, journalists, and innocent bystanders. These groups have all been touched by the erosion of social protections. In the first 17 days of 2019, 9 police officers took their own lives in France. To be against police violence is to argue that the lives and voices of the people matter – black, blue, and otherwise.

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