PARIS — This is for all those Americans who like to complain about “the race card” being played whenever there is a confrontation between members of minority groups and the police. France is a country fervently attached to the concept of “color-blindness.” Keeping racial statistics is against the law. Politicians talk about the unifying value of “republicanism” and look unfavorably on organizations based on race and ethnicity.
Then there was the violent incident with a familiar ring: A policeman in a Paris suburb was accused of sodomizing a young man with a nightstick earlier this month during a confrontation. It brings back memories of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who suffered a similar fate in Brooklyn precinct cell in 1997 at the hands of New York Police Department officers using a broken broom handle. The incident quickly became an allegory of out-of-control cops in minority communities.
But because this is France, the event has been handled in a particularly Gallic way. No one in France rushed to explicitly define the incident as a racial confrontation. Almost two weeks after the Feb. 2 episode at Aulnay-sous-Bois — despite its melodic name, one of the restive Paris “banlieues,” or suburban towns where many immigrants live — the victim is still only known as Theo L., without a mention of his race, due to French privacy laws. However, television interviews with Theo L. and his parents quickly revealed that he was black. The police officers involved have not been named and no photos of them have appeared, although three have been charged with aggravated assault and one with aggravated rape.
The brutal episode set off a flurry of protests in the banlieues around Paris, some of which have ended violently with rock-throwing and cars on fire, resulting in 245 arrests, according to the interior ministry. There have also been peaceful marches and protests around France calling for an end to police brutality and demanding justice.
With the French presidential campaign fully underway, politicians seemed remarkably restrained in response to the protests at first. Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was conciliatory toward the protesters, saying that “understandable emotions” could not justify violence. Theo L. appealed for peace from his hospital bed. In a gesture hard to imagine in the United States, President François Hollande visited Theo’s bedside and praised his effort to calm the waters, promising that “justice will be done.” Yet the internal police investigation resulted in a finding that Theo’s injuries, which included a 2.5-inch tear in his anus, were not intentional.
When violent protests continued, the presidential candidates finally weighed in. François Fillon, the right-of-center candidate, insisted that “all the truth must come out” but condemned the violence. Left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon suggested that the violence was being encouraged, without specifying by whom. Predictably, National Front candidate Marine Le Pen sided with the police, condemning the permissiveness of “politicians who have governed us for years.” One of her deputies in the far-right party was more blunt, blaming the violence on “racaille,” or rabble. Fillon, who is trying to draw voters from Le Pen, then one-upped his position by calling for treating as adults teens as young as 16 who are accused of attacking police.
The harsh label echoed the hard-line response of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who as interior minister in 2005 promised to sweep the “rabble” from the streets with high-pressure hoses when riots erupted all over France after the deaths of two minority youths being chased by police.
Despite its commitment to color-blindness, France has made uneven racial progress. Interracial couples and families are common. The 2017 Miss France is from French Guiana. Yet discrimination in employment is widespread. In the banlieues, unemployment is 27 percent vs. 10 percent for the rest of the country. Outside of sports and entertainment, few members of France’s growing minority population have reached significant or visible positions in French society. It was only in 2012 that Omar Sy became the first black actor to win a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar. In 2015, novelist Alain Mabanckou was the first black writer elected to France’s most prestigious academic institution, the nearly 500-year-old College de France. Hollande’s former justice minister Christiane Taubira, a native of French Guiana, was a high-profile presence but resigned last year in a disagreement with his government over anti-terrorism measures.
The lack of highly visible minorities has also meant a paucity of influential minority spokespersons. Few blacks or Arabs have participated in the discussions of the unrest on France’s multitudinous political talk shows. The long-standing tensions between the police and French minorities or the problems of these communities have largely been ignored in this year’s presidential campaign — until now. Yet a 2016 study by the Defender of Rights, a government watchdog, showed that young blacks or Arabs were seven times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police. Promises made by Hollande during his 2012 campaign to reduce unemployment, improve schools and require the police to issue a receipt after each stop-and-frisk check have not been implemented. Instead, French legislators this week are voting to give police officers a freer hand at opening fire in self-defense.
After several days of unrest, the prime minister finally met with representatives of anti-racism organizations Monday. The results were not encouraging, according to TV reports. “We didn’t feel we were heard,” said Aissa Sago, head of a women’s group in Aulnay-sous-Bois that tries to mediate conflict. The long-term consequences could be political. Blaise Cueco, regional head of SOS Racisme, warned in a TV interview, “Each time you burn a car, it’s thousands of votes for Marine Le Pen.” Chances are that the race card will be played in the election, but without having to call it what it is.