ARGENTEUIL, France — When French police allegedly raped a 22-year-old black man named Théo in the Paris suburbs earlier this month, that was merely the beginning.
For almost two weeks, the outskirts of Paris and other major French cities have erupted in often violent protests: cars set ablaze, rioting late into the night. The demonstrations are mostly against police violence, but at their core they are propelled by a deep-rooted anger over structural racism and the perceived failure of the French state to address a long-volatile situation. The “Théo Affair” began with the case of just one young man, but it has now ignited the frustrations of France’s black community, one of the largest in Europe.
On Tuesday — largely to calm the rising waters of national crisis in a fraught election year — French President François Hollande made a rare appearance in the Paris suburbs, where many French citizens of African and Arab origin live in low-income housing projects far from the splendor of the center city. Days after visiting Théo in the hospital, an unusual gesture from a French president, Hollande pleaded for an end to the rioting.
“Justice must pass,” Hollande said, after dozens of protesters were arrested during the two previous nights. “When there are shortcomings,” he continued, referring to allegations of police misconduct, “they must be clearly denounced and justice seized.”
But in the eyes of many protesters, the “shortcomings” in this particular case have not, in fact, been clearly denounced, and justice has not been seized.
For one, medical examiners determined that Théo — whose full name has not been released — suffered a wound from a police truncheon, which had been shoved into his rectum. But the public prosecutor’s office initially said that the incident constituted “accidental rape,” which was therefore unintentional.
This, read a statement from Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), France’s largest black advocacy group, was a “catchphrase that would lend a laugh, were its subject not so dramatic.”
“The police are there to protect people,” said Louis-Georges Tin, president of the CRAN, in an interview. “Not to put them in danger.”
France’s Interior Ministry has since suspended the four officers concerned, all of whom will be charged with assault and one for rape. But despite these proceedings, the damage has largely been done: Many in the black community said they see the notion of “accidental rape” as an insult and the latest example of their marginalization in a society that proudly considers itself colorblind.
Protest, in other words, is nonnegotiable.
“I am 39 years old,” said Eros Sana, a leader of the Green Party in Sarcelles, a suburb northwest of Paris. “How long will I be a black French citizen and having people from the banlieues being tricked out of their rights?”
“We are still second-class citizens,” he said. “If we don’t rebel, nothing will change. And things cannot stay the same.”
Here in Argenteuil — another northern Paris suburb where 11 people were arrested during a violent Sunday riot — two black teenagers from the area, both 19, said they were now afraid to go out after dark, even to join the protests.
“Yes, what happened is horribly racist and discriminatory,” said one of them, who would only give his name as Karim. “But who protects us from the police? Who is the police of the police?”
Wanzi Ang, 42, an information technician who said he has lived in Argenteuil since 1989, was much less surprised by the brutal details of the Théo Affair than his younger neighbors. When asked about the case, he brushed the question aside.
“Whenever there’s a problem with a black man and the police, it’s always an ‘accident,’ ” he said.
The Théo Affair is far from the first instance of alleged police brutality against blacks and Arabs in France, even in the past year. In July 2016, Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old construction worker, died in police custody shortly after three police officers pounced on his back at the same time. Likewise, in 2005, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, (who is not related to Adama) were killed after an encounter with police in Clichy-sous-Bois outside Paris, which launched massive protests that ultimately forced the French government to declare a national “state of emergency.”
The difficulty, Tin said, is proving that French police disproportionately target minority suspects in a country where keeping statistics on race or ethnicity is strictly prohibited.
Despite the relative frequency with which these episodes occur, France remains a country where race — as a social distinction but also as a separate lived experience — does not officially exist. All citizens remain equal in the eyes of the state, which now refuses, mostly to apologize for stripping away nationality from Jewish citizens in World War II, even to recognize any difference. In fact, among Hollande’s campaign promises in 2012 was to remove the word “race” from the French constitution altogether.
“The main issue,” Sana said, “is that we have this very strong hypocrisy — since our revolution, since 1789 — that all citizens are equal, and that people don’t see color and gender. It’s a myth of all citizens being equal, whatever color they are.”
This, he said, is the meaning of the Théo Affair, which was not merely a rejection of police violence.
“This founding myth is a big reason why people are mobilizing,” he said.