The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Paris, thousands defy police orders to protest death of George Floyd

Police fired tear gas at protesters in Paris on June 2, after George Floyd's death reignited outrage over the 2016 death of a black Frenchman, Adama Traoré. (Video: Reuters)

PARIS — Nearly 15,000 demonstrators defied police orders and marched in a sprawling protest against police violence outside the Paris tribunal Tuesday night, largely inspired by the killing of George Floyd last week in the United States.

The march was largely peaceful, but there were multiple reports of police deploying tear gas beyond the view of a Washington Post reporter. Video footage released by France’s BFM TV also appeared to show one group of demonstrators burning a Colonial American flag with the French and American names written on the white stripes.

Earlier in the day, the Paris Police Prefecture declared the protest illegal on the grounds that it violated government guidelines restricting large gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic that remain in place even as the country has begun its de-confinement process.

Protesters turned out in droves anyway in the capital — the crowd estimate of 15,000 came from police sources cited in French media — and in a number of smaller cities.

Within Europe, France has the most vocal and developed movement against police tactics that activists say disproportionately affect black and Arab citizens. That perceived disparity is among the most explosive issues in a country with a distinct post-colonial history that preaches universal equality but is also home to one of Europe’s most ethnically diverse societies.

But while protests against police violence and racial discrimination are common in France, community organizers say they have struggled to achieve the sort of recognition and outcry of support that U.S. activists have gotten.

“In the U.S., the question of racial discrimination is something that’s very clearly enunciated,” said Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist and anti-racism activist. “But in France, there’s a refusal, a denial about what happens on French soil.”

Tuesday’s march sought to raise awareness about incidents similar to Floyd’s killing that have happened in France for years but have failed to hold public attention. Organized by “Justice for Adama” — a social justice movement founded by the family of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black construction worker who died in the custody of French police in 2016 — the protest attempted to highlight parallels between the two cases.

Protesters carried signs with both men’s names beneath the words Floyd uttered while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck: “I can’t breathe.” In the French case, police were accused of jumping on Traoré’s back and suffocating him.

“Today, it’s no longer the fight of the Traoré family — it’s all of your fight,” Assa Traoré, Adama Traoré’s sister and one of the march’s key organizers, told the crowds Tuesday. “Today, when we fight for George Floyd, we fight for Adama Traoré.”

Madjid Messaoudene, a municipal official from Seine-Saint-Denis outside Paris, one of the most diverse administrative departments in France, said in a phone interview: “We don’t have the same history with the U.S. or the same history as African Americans, so it’s complicated to compare. But the point in common is the impunity of the police.”

In 2005, France nearly shut down when riots broke after the death of two teenagers — one black, one Arab — who were trying to escape police in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. And as recently as late April, in the thick of the country’s coronavirus shutdown, small protests were held in the Paris suburbs and other cities after a man on a motorcycle crashed into the open door of a police vehicle.

But those protests faded away after about a week. Although the motorcyclist was hospitalized, he was not killed, and the episode disappeared from view, even if underlying concerns remain widespread.

“It’s everywhere, the killing,” said Melissa Flason, 31, a commercial adviser who attended Tuesday’s protest in Paris. “It happens here in France. But it’s less of a media spectacle, because we speak about it much less.”

For Diallo, one key difference may be the history of the African American community in the United States compared with its French counterpart, which is treated as peripheral.

“Blacks in the U.S. are essential to American history — there were blacks in the U.S. even before there was a U.S.,” she said. “But blacks in France are seen as having come from the exterior, as if they just arrived. Denial is easier that way.”

Other protesters were less interested in transatlantic divergences.

“What I find so tragic is that human lives are so seemingly worthless,” said Oumou Margelisch, 52, who works in a Paris nursery school. “These days it’s all: ‘We must protect the planet. We must protect the animals.’ But we can crush a man’s throat, especially when he happens to be black.”

Margelisch was there with her daughter, a 17-year-old high school student carrying an “I can’t breathe” sign. Margelisch pointed out that her daughter’s father is white. “How am I supposed to explain this to her?” she asked. “It’s as if the side of her father killed the side of her mother. Do you see the conflict there? This has to stop.”

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