The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion France refuses to talk about race. New protests could change that.

Hawa Traore, center, sister of Adama Traore, a 24-year-old black man who died in French police custody in 2016, takes part in a rally as part of the Black Lives Matter worldwide protests against racism and police brutality, in Marseille on June 13. (Clement Mahoudeau/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rokhaya Diallo is a journalist and filmmaker.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis resonated around the world. But it had a particular echo in France, one of the most ethnically diverse countries in Europe, where discussing race is still a challenge.

In 2016, Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black Frenchman, was arrested after trying to flee an identity check. He died a couple of hours later, in custody; his family says he was asphyxiated under the weight of three police officers weighing 250 kilos.

From that day, the Justice and Truth for Adama committee, led by his sister Assa Traoré, has been demanding the indictment of the officers, who were able to continue in their careers as if nothing happened. So when Floyd’s death was covered in the French media in a way that implied that racism was an issue specific to the United States, the committee decided to call for a rally in front of the Court of Paris to remind people that in France the overwhelming majority of those who die at the hands of the police are nonwhite men.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

This racial bias in policing has been documented for decades: France has been sentenced several times by the European Court of Human Rights for “torture” and mistreatment in police procedures involving minorities. Its own supreme court judged the state guilty of “willful misconduct” in its racial profiling procedures.

In 2007, a 25-year-old black man named Lamine Dieng died in a police truck after being arrested by eight police officers who handcuffed him and knelt on his back. His family went through the judicial process, and French courts dismissed them at every step. It took a court at the European level to have France admit that something was wrong. On June 4, France agreed to compensate the family 145,000 euros ($162,000).

Over the past two weeks, the rallies organized by the Adama committee have gathered tens of thousands of protesters. The unexpected number of demonstrators — combined with reports of several private Facebook and WhatsApp groups of police officers sharing racist, homophobic and sexist jokes and slurs, as well as calls for racial war — has finally forced the interior minister to address racism in the police, vowing “zero tolerance” for police racism.

Other topics quickly also gained attention in public discourse, particularly the countless streets and statues named and made for slave traders or owners, colonizers and torturers. Even before Floyd’s death, activists in Martinique (a French territory in the Caribbean) tore down two statues of Victor Schoelcher, a colonialist who is famous for his advocacy of the abolition of slavery but who also advocated the compensation of slave owners afterward. One of the statues showed him holding a child’s hand and guiding him to freedom. Now, the fact that a statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert stands at the entrance of the French National Assembly is being questioned as well. Colbert is well known for being one of the most prominent politicians of monarchic France, but he also helped write the Black Code, which reduced enslaved Africans to movable assets, and founded the French East India Company, which organized the slave trade.

These events have shed light on how France has long avoided serious discussion about race, hiding behind the “colorblind” philosophy of the Republic.

French President Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that he did not intend to remove any of these monuments, saying “we must look together lucidly, at all of our history … and under no circumstances revisit or deny what we are.” Macron also refused also to address police brutality, preferring to stand with the police who, according to him, “deserve public support and the recognition of the nation for their work.”

Instead, he has focused on what he considers the misappropriation of the fight against racism by those he refers to as “separatists.” What lies under this distortion of the anti-racist struggle is the idea that addressing race explicitly means “Americanizing” the debate. Several columns published by prominent French intellectuals and politicians have argued that France is not the United States, and thus has a different context for these debates. Sure, our countries are different. But France was also a colonial power that benefited from and perpetuated slavery, and the racial theories that shaped the United States were born on the European soil.

What changes do you hope will come out of protests and debates about police and race? Write to us.

Challenging this paradigm in France is so sensitive that an open letter published by acclaimed novelist Virginie Despentes acknowledging the white privilege she was benefiting from led to anger across the political landscape. Most of her detractors were disturbed by the fact that she mentioned whiteness, which they claimed was divisive and threatening to society. Former National Assembly member Corinne Narassiguin wrote that “white privilege” was “dangerous nonsense” and that “importing that expression was a try to mimic the U.S. history on France.”

But how could the structure of racism founded on white supremacy — on which France built a significant part of its wealth — not operate anymore? How can a phenomenon that shapes our demography and our geography (many of the former colonies have been made into territories) not produce structural racism?

As the new wave of protests show, France’s reluctance to address racial disparities has met a young generation that is urging the country to face the obvious. Despite the resistance, France is finally seeing new momentum on race.

Read more:

Rokhaya Diallo: France is blaming the poor for their own deaths. But look at how it treats them.

Karen Attiah: Monuments of white supremacy obscure the history of colonial crimes. That’s why they must come down.

Cole Stangler: In France’s coronavirus crisis, the undocumented are being left behind

Rokhaya Diallo: France’s dangerous move to remove ‘race’ from its constitution