Her brother Adama died in French police custody in July 2016 on his 24th birthday, after an arrest that was not filmed like Floyd’s, but during which Adama was similarly pinned down by three police officers and reportedly said he could not breathe. Conflicting autopsies listed heart failure or asphyxiation as the cause of death.
Assa Traoré and her family have sought to transform Adama’s name into a rallying cry against police violence in France. His death has been referred to as “France’s Ferguson,” and Assa has been credited as the key force behind France’s Black Lives Matter equivalent.
Until now, though, she didn’t feel like they were getting anywhere. There was no acknowledgment from French officials that what happened to her brother was wrong. The police officers involved were neither fired nor disciplined — last month, an expert report exonerated them. And there was no broader reckoning with what activists say is discriminatory police violence or with other structural discrimination.
But some of that may be changing, as frustration in France merges with global outrage over Floyd’s death last month in Minneapolis. “Justice for Adama” and for Floyd have been twinned messages in the massive protests that have overtaken the streets of Paris and other French cities.
Defying a police order banning protests amid the coronavirus pandemic, an estimated 15,000 people marched in Paris in honor of Floyd and Adama Traoré on June 2. On June 7, the total was nearly 23,000 in the capital and other French cities. Another march is planned for Saturday.
The determined crowds have stirred a response from the French government.
On Monday, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced a host of changes to police tactics, including abolishing chokeholds. Castaner further vowed to investigate and punish racist comments from police officers — following reports of a police Facebook group that regularly included racist, sexist and homophobic language.
French President Emmanuel Macron also urged Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet to look into the case of Adama Traoré.
The Traoré family is holding out for more.
The family confirmed that the justice minister contacted them but said they would refuse to meet with her until there had been legal progress in their case. The family “has asked for four years that the police in whose hands Adama Traoré died be brought to justice, interrogated and indicted,” read a statement posted on Facebook.
Assa Traoré maintains they are not just fighting for her brother. She said her ultimate goal is to raise awareness of racial discrimination in a society that refuses to recognize race.
Among Western nations, France has a unique relationship to the concept of race. In the name of protecting universal equality, the state does not recognize any racial or ethnic differences among its citizens. This is in part a response to the experience of World War II, when Jewish citizens were classified, denationalized and, in many cases, deported to Nazi concentration camps.
Since 1978, French law has prevented the collection of statistics on race, religion or ethnicity, and in 2013, the French Parliament nearly banned the word “race” from the constitution altogether.
French citizens of color say denial of race as a concept is connected to a denial of racial problems.
“That’s what we are facing today,” Assa Traoré said. “France doesn’t even accept the word. Contrary to the U.S., where the racial cause is very clear, in France people say that ‘no, no, there’s no racism’ — in France, it’s all the ‘social cause.’ But we are saying no.”
Christiane Taubira, a former justice minister and the only black woman to have held that post, said the reality of structural racism was undeniable, even in an officially colorblind society.
“There are mechanisms that make it difficult for young people in the suburbs to assume responsibilities, positions and enter institutions,” she told France’s Journal du Dimanche newspaper on June 6.
Activists say France’s coronavirus lockdown provided further opportunities for discrimination. For eight weeks, national rules permitted people to leave home only once a day, for exercise or essential shopping. But in the Paris suburbs, where many minorities live, people complained that police monitored for infractions more heavily than in the streets of central Paris.
An April incident between police officers and a motorcyclist in the suburb of Villeneuve-la-Garenne prompted a spate of small protests. But it is only now that large numbers of people have joined the demonstrations, triggering a national debate.
Prominent commentators from the right and left of the political spectrum — who agree about little else — have momentarily joined forces to attack the notion of “white privilege” on the grounds that it threatens universal equality and echoes the noble “privileges” abolished during the French Revolution.
Eugénie Bastié, a conservative columnist for the right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper, dismissed the concept because “a poor white man would be, according to this paradigm, ‘privileged’ compared to his brother of color.”
Caroline Fourest, a feminist writer and filmmaker, said in a recent interview that using the term risked ceding ground to a “left that effectively wants to racialize all debates.”
“And they do not do it to find solution or to reduce discrimination,” she said. “I call them ‘identity war profiteers,’ they are people who live in chaos, who live from victimization and who never want us to move forward together.”
While the most vehement attacks on “white privilege” have come from white commentators, some voices of color have taken issue with it, too.
“To import the expression ‘white privilege’ into France is to plaster the history of the United States onto the history of France without respecting the one or the other,” argued Corinne Narassiguin, an official in France’s Socialist Party, in Le Monde this week.
But for Assa Traoré, these critiques are examples of gaslighting designed to change the subject. “We denounce the racism against blacks and nonwhites,” she said. “It’s much stronger to put it that way.”
Some French officials have begun to acknowledge that perhaps white privilege does exist, especially when it comes to police practices.
“Our thesis, our values, our rules — constitutional, et cetera — they are universalist. They do not recognize difference,” said Jacques Toubon, France’s public defender of civil liberties and a former justice minister, in a telephone interview. “But there is a tension between this and the reality.”
He noted the controversial question of police identity checks, which stem from a 1993 law designed to crack down on illegal immigration. A man under 25 who is perceived to be black or Arab is 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than “all other persons,” Toubon said.
In 2012, François Hollande, a Socialist, campaigned for the French presidency promising to overhaul police identity checks and require officers to issue a receipt from each encounter. But that proposal was never implemented.
Toubon said acknowledging racial disparities does not threaten the principle of universal equality by somehow enshrining difference. “The treatment of discrimination according to origin is completely in line with equality. If you want to treat it, you have to address these differences,” he said.
Speaking at an impromptu news conference Tuesday, Assa Traoré said French officials would need to go further.
“Words no longer suffice,” she said. “It’s no longer words we’re asking for, it’s judicial acts.”