There is also an insoluble quality to French police violence, which resists being explained by recent laws or electoral politics.
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There is a French word for a police intervention that goes wrong and results in injury or death: "bavure." It dates from the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), when French security forces terrorized the insurgent population of their country's North African colony and engaged in a parallel repression of Algerians living in France. These days, the word surfaces whenever the police are in the news for allegedly brutalizing or killing an unarmed person. The newspapers handle the term delicately, often encasing it within quotation marks, while the bereaved families hurl it like a missile. For them, there is a growing sense that bavure is a central feature of France's increasingly aggressive police state.
One of the latest victims of a high-profile bavure is Adama Traoré, who died in police custody in July last year in the town of Beaumont-sur-Oise, just north of Paris. The details are contested, but this much is clear: Two plainclothes police officers asked Adama and his brother for their IDs; Adama didn't have his and, having just spent time in jail for punching someone, decided to run; he was apprehended and taken to the police station, where he died. The local prosecutor suggested that Adama died of a "very serious infection" leading to a cardiac arrest. The Traoré family demanded a second autopsy, which concluded that the cause of death was asphyxiation. A firefighter's witness report states that he discovered Adama's corpse not in the recovery position but facedown on the ground, his hands still handcuffed behind his back.
In the intervening months, the call "Justice pour Adama" has reverberated at protests and riots. (It has recently been joined by "Justice pour Théo," referring to a youth worker who, this February, was beaten and raped by a group of policemen in another Parisian suburb.) One of the voices sustaining this cry belongs to Adama's sister, Assa Traoré. A 31-year-old mother of three, Assa quit her job as an educator to work full time as the Traoré family's spokesperson. She is a robust orator, and has taken her scathing critique of the police and judiciary, and unflappable belief that justice will prevail, to major newspapers and news programs, garnering support and wrath in equal measure.
"The mayor of Beaumont lodged a complaint against me for defamation," Assa told me over a grapefruit juice in a shopping mall in southwest Paris. "I went on Le Gros Journal [a current-affairs program] and said she had effectively chosen the side of police violence over my brother, which is true." Assa claims that the mayor, Nathalie Groux, has been complicit with the local government's handling of Adama's case, which has been suspicious from the moment he died. "After the first autopsy, they summoned us to the prefecture and said that, because we're Muslims, they understand we'll want to bury the body within three days and take it to Mali [where the Traoré family are originally from]," she said. "They had already contacted Air France and said if anyone doesn't have passports, we'll provide them." This highly unusual response suggested to Assa that they were trying to hide something. Neither the Val-d'Oise authority, which has jurisdiction over the town of Beaumont, nor Air France responded to requests for comment.
The family's activism has been met by what they describe as a campaign of harassment from the state. "It's taken the form of repression, humiliation, and intimidation," Assa told me. When Groux organized a Beaumont City Council meeting in November 2016 to discuss raising fees to pursue her defamation case against Assa, the family organized a protest. The police launched tear gas at the crowd and, five days later, arrested Assa's brothers, Bagui and Yssoufou, for assaulting a police officer during the chaos. Assa claims that Bagui has been on hunger strike at Fleury-Mérogis prison to protest his imprisonment. The head of detention at the prison told me that she was unable to comment on whether this was true or not without authorization from the National Ministry of Justice.
During our conversation, Assa received several texts from journalists requesting interviews and phone calls from her family (she switches between French and Soninke, a Malian language, when speaking to her mother). Like other figures in France's burgeoning movement against police violence, she has been forced into activism out of necessity. Political organizing has taken the place reserved for mourning, so I asked whether she misses her private life. "It's true that there's no longer a normal week in my life. For the Traoré family, it's a bit like the TV series 24," she said, laughing. "Every hour is different. But I don't miss my private life; I miss life with my brother. All I know is they killed him, and we will continue until we get justice and truth. But Adama has also become a symbol," she continued. "He's become bigger than our family. He represents all the discontent in France. They make us believe this is a country of rights and liberty, but that's not true. I said this from the beginning, but if France is going to stop all this violence, it's going to need another revolution. It's simple."
I was in Paris this March, during a period of intense political activity. The first round of the presidential election was a month away. Posters for the candidates could be seen on every street corner; almost all were defaced. It has been a dismal five years for President François Hollande and the ruling Socialist Party. His attempt to liberalize the economy with pro-business reforms angered his base, triggering one of the biggest social movements— Nuit Debout, France's version of Occupy—for generations. He is the first sitting president since the World War II to have ruled out running for reelection. Poised to take his place is either Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National (FN)—reaping the rewards of a detoxification program to make the party appear less extreme than when it was run by her Holocaust-denying father—or the neoliberal centrist Emmanuel Macron. The right-wing François Fillon was polling well until a corruption scandal damaged his campaign.
The favored candidates signal a rightward shift in French politics, yet they agree, perhaps with the exception of Macron, on one legacy of Hollande's presidency: the consolidation of a powerful police state. After the Bataclan terror attacks in November 2015, Hollande declared a state of emergency, granting the police vast powers of search, seizure, and detention. The National Assembly has renewed it several times since. What was billed as a temporary measure in a time of crisis has been almost completely normalized. It was strengthened in early 2017 with the passing of a law on public security—denounced as "inacceptable" by Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de l'Homme (the National Commission on Human Rights)—that relaxes restrictions on the police's use of force in "legitimate self-defense." Repeated studies have shown the police wield their powers, especially the right to ask citizens for identity cards, disproportionately against first- and second-generation immigrants, often from France's former colonies. Le Pen, however, has suggested the state of emergency doesn't go far enough and made electoral ground positioning herself as the candidate of national security against "rebellious militias," a formulation that neatly elides "delinquents" like Adama with jihadist terrorists. According to a study conducted by Sciences Po University, 51.5 percent of police officers and soldiers voted for the FN in 2015 regional elections.
There is also an insoluble quality to French police violence, which resists being explained by recent laws or electoral politics. For some, the roots of this problem—between the police and the young, lower-class Muslim men who end up being the subject of bavures —are in the traumatic years of the Algerian War of Independence. France has never come to terms with this long, brutal war of decolonization, which resulted in the loss of its most cherished colony; it was only classified as an actual war, rather than "law enforcement operations" within France's rightful territory, in 1999. The sociologist Mathieu Rigouste argues that the "methods of repression" the contemporary police use come directly from the repertoire deployed in the French colonies, especially in Algeria, when "natives" were tortured, terrorized, and executed. The police and army, then as now, were acting under a state of emergency. As the writer Jeremy Harding put it, cases of extreme police violence "[lead] inevitably to the fear that French security culture still carries a pathogen inoculated into the army and police in Algeria—and mainland France—when 'special powers' were approved in 1956." It is in this political and historical context that the movement against police violence has flourished.
The night before meeting Assa, I saw one of those groups in action. The Collectif 19 mars was having its last meeting before a large anti-police-violence demonstration in central Paris: a March for Justice and Dignity. The plan was for thousands to walk alongside the families of those affected by police violence, ending with a concert in the Place de la République. With the march three days away, the meeting—around 30 people, young and old, some new to activism, some seasoned veterans—mostly consisted of administrative work: Will there be observers from Amnesty International? What order will the musicians play?
One of the organizers was Amal Bentounsi, another woman of African origin forced into activism after her brother, Amine, was killed, shot in the back by the police in 2012. In the week before the meeting, her brother's trial had concluded after an appeal, and, unusually, the policeman responsible was found guilty of manslaughter and given a suspended sentence of five years. The police trade union, Alliance, protested the decision, which, to it, proved that further reform of "legitimate defense" rules was needed.
Amal opened a bottle of Champagne after the meeting to celebrate with her comrades, many of whom helped out during the trial. By her own admission, she is "completely exhausted" and has spent the past five years speaking to families affected by police violence and creating the victims' support group Urgence! Notre Police Assassine (Emergency! Our Police Kill). I asked whether the sentencing gave her hope. "I would say it's a small, symbolic victory," she said. "But there is much more work to be done because so many more families are waiting for justice."
The question of the state of emergency was brought up in the meeting, so I asked whether it had really changed the police's behavior. Amal believes that for many in the quartiers (the working-class, multiracial neighborhoods), the state of emergency didn't start in 2015. "It's been in practice for many years," she said. "We can say that now it's been extended to the population at large, and more people are aware of what the police do. It's meant the social movements [like Nuit Debout] are interested in the question of police violence, because they underwent the same police oppression when they protested last year. There's a convergence between the people who've experienced it for years and these other movements. And that's a good thing. We've never had as much visibility as we have today."
It didn't rain on the day of the march, as the collective feared it might, and people came out in droves—7,500, according to the police. The affected families were at the front, holding a banner with 13 portraits of people killed or maimed by the police, all young men of African origin, and shouting their names, "Théo, Adama, Zyed, Bouna…" Behind them were migrants' rights groups denouncing "French state racism and its history of colonization," trade unionists, small left-wing political parties, and even a van filled with loudspeakers, full of rappers performing live ("Nique la France!" "Fuck France!").
The Place de la République was brimming with protesters, activists, children, parents, and teenagers. It felt like a festival; people cheered when the headline act, the rapper Kery James, came on to the stage. The huge monument of Marianne in the center of the square—the personification of the French Republic—was draped in signs urging people to organize themselves against police violence and declaring opposition to the state of emergency. The last time it was embellished with radical slogans was last year, when Nuit Debout occupied the square for two weeks. In this sense, the march represents the possible coalition of those two forces that Amal described: the social movements focused on the economy and the movement against police violence.
Surrounding the square were several lines of the CRS, the French police's riot squad. They were laden with helmets, shin pads, shoulder guards, tear gas, and firearms. They searched the bags of people arriving, a move sanctioned by the state of emergency. As I was leaving the square, I looked up #MarchePourLaJusticeEtLaDignité on Twitter and saw that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen—Marine Le Pen's niece, an FN member of parliament, and next in line in the far-right dynasty—had shared a video of a small group of antifascists throwing Molotov cocktails at riot police earlier in the day. "MarchePourLaJusticeEtLaDignité = A march of hate and violence against the police and France," she wrote. It had more than 1,000 retweets. As a previous generation of French radicals once declared: La lutte continue. The struggle continues.