Race, Inequality, And Police Brutality In France

On Thursday 2 February, a 22-year-old man was raped and brutalized by police officers in Aulnay-sous-Bois. Theo, cleared of any criminal activity, suffered severe injuries from the sexual assault. This latest attack reflects a disturbing reality for those living in the banlieues of Paris, which are the impoverished neighbourhoods and housing estates inhabited by predominantly migrant and third generation communities. While the police officer responsible now faces charges of rape, renewed protests, and marches demanding “Justice Pour Theo” have reflected the continued, systemic racism that goes unaddressed in France.

Indeed, a study conducted in 2009 by France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and the Open Society Justice Initiative found that: “those presumed to be “Black” were, on average 6 times more likely than those presumed to be “White” to be stopped [by police]; while those presumed to be “Arab” were 8 times more likely than those presumed to be “White” to be stopped”. This issue speaks to wider trends within Europe and worldwide that see ethnic and racial profiling on the rise as a result of xenophobia, racism, and disunity. This latest attack necessitates an overhaul of the justice and law enforcement systems that continue to target individuals according to their race and ethnicity. More significantly, this issue points to the ever-pressing need for societal cohesion and a drastic improvement in the livelihoods of minorities pushed to the periphery.

Sadly, Theo’s attack is not isolated. In July 2016, a French-Malaian man died while in police custody. It also triggered demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter France movement. One protestor said: “The police killed Adama. We are facing a new case of injustice and it’s not the first time it has happened. We need this to stop. We need justice.” Speaking to Al Jazeera, Franco Lollia, an activist from the Anti-Negrophobia Brigade, recognizes that this racism stems from a more sinister past: “You can only understand the relationship between minorities and their governance through the prism of colonialism: everything is fitted through this, for example, racial profiling. It is an inheritance from France’s colonial past. What we see here today can be described as internal colonialism within French borders.” The economic and social conditions of the banlieues reflect prevailing inequalities within France, and the government’s failure to improve access to quality education, housing, and employment opportunities.

Mistrust remains a salient issue for banlieue residents and the police. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Paris attacks in 2015, racial and ethnic profiling has escalated significantly. The government must diffuse these tensions and establish programs and initiatives that educate citizens about diversity and acceptance. But the ghettoization of the banlieues has created a physical barrier to achieving inclusion and fostering tolerance. The French president, François Hollande rose to power on a pledge to improve the livelihoods of migrants and ethnic groups within France, including revising the “stop and frisk” policies of law enforcement that predominantly target residents of the banlieues. At the institutional level, the police must abide by the principles of transparency and accountability. Too often, police officers accused of racial profiling can deny wrongdoing, due to a lack of evidence or unwillingness to report incidents to superiors.

In this climate of fear and xenophobia, the rise of nationalism and the popularity of the far right, divisive rhetoric has exacerbated underlying racial tensions in France, Europe, and worldwide. The brutal rape of Theo is a chilling reminder of the pervasive racism and hatred that has poisoned societies. However, the rise of counter-movements like Black Lives Matter France has shown that democracy and the power of the people will ensure that justice is reached for victims of hate and divisionism.

Caitlin Biddolph