15 things to know about racism and police brutality in France

A young black man was allegedly sodomised in Paris this month. And that's not the worst of it.

Photo by: AFP (Archive)
Photo by: AFP (Archive)

Woman on Nice beach being forced to remove her burkini by armed police on August 23, 2016.

Protests erupted in several cities of France after the alleged rape of a 22-year-old black man by police during a routine check in a suburban neighbourhood of Paris.

A surveillance video of the victim’s arrest was released. But an internal police investigation found that the officer accused of sodomising the victim with his baton, did so “unintentionally.” Later, French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux termed the case a “tragic accident.” He then said that the term “accident” was inappropriate.
But this is not one incident — it’s one of a broader pattern. Here are 15 things to know about France’s race problem:

1. It’s not the first time that France's police have courted controversy. A series of riots in October and November 2005 followed the electrocution of two black youths hiding from police in an electricity substation in a suburb outside Paris. Thousands of vehicles, dozens of buildings and businesses were set on fire during the urban riots.

2. France’s stop-and-search policy disproportionately targets non-whites. Within three months of the state of emergency imposed by French President Francois Hollande following the Daesh-claimed Paris attacks in November 2015, the government had ordered 3,289 searches and between 350 and 400 house arrests. As a result of the searches, only five investigations into terrorism-related offenses were launched by the Paris prosecutor’s office, according to figures provided by the French Interior Ministry.

But during the same period, Jacques Toubon, the French human rights ombudsperson, received about 40 complaints about the emergency measures that relate to abuses. Complaints included unjustified searches, insufficient evidence, and raids on the wrong addresses. 

3. The state of emergency has taken aim at those of North African descent. In a Human Rights Watch report published in February 2016, Toubon said that while policing measures allowed under the state of emergency are not laid out in a way that targets a particular group, “in reality these measures are aimed at a specific movement and at very observant Muslims. That can give rise to a feeling of injustice and of defiance towards public authorities.”

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, which mostly comprises people of North African decent.

All the measures that Human Rights Watch documented targeted Muslims, Muslim establishments, or halal restaurants. Many people also said they felt they had been targeted because of their religion.

4. No Justice, No Peace?

Graffiti in the Paris suburb of Bobigny reads "No justice, no peace," with riot police in the background. (AFP)

There are no adequate mechanisms in place to review any complaints of ill treatment or abuse at the hands of law enforcement personnel. This means that officers can act with impunity — or without fear of censure.

5. The growing number of cases is of concern to rights groups.

Jews and Muslims are facing increasing discrimination and racism in France, according to several reports by rights organisations. (Reuters/Archive)

Around 180 cases of abusive house arrests and raids within the first three months of the emergency imposition were documented by The French Collective Against Islamophobia. (CCIF)

6. France is imprisoning its Maghrib-origin population. Even though France's government does not publish statistics on the ethnic or religious makeup of its population, a 2004 study commissioned by the French government showed that Muslims – most of whom hail from immigrant backgrounds – are vastly over-represented in France's prison population. 

France's prison population has grown by a third in the past decade, partly due to policies, under conservative governments, of handing down heavy sentences on repeat petty offenders. (AFP/Archive)

The imprisonment of Muslims over petty crimes often leads to radicalisation of inmates, who come from communities blighted by poverty and unemployment.

About 60 to 70 percent of all inmates in the country's prison system are Muslim, although Muslims make up only about 12 percent of the country's population.

But it’s not just the police. Does France have a bigger problem with bigotry? 

7. France's very recent past is stained

Algerian protesters were slaughtered by French police on the streets of Paris on October 17, 1961. (The Daily Mail). The 1961 massacre of Algerian immigrants still casts an uneasy shadow over France's large population of North African immigrants. The massacre was widely recorded by historians, who say more than 200 people may have been killed. 

"On October 17,1961, Algerians who were protesting for independence were killed in a bloody repression. I pay homage to victims fifty-one years later," France's President Francois Hollande said in 2012, while acknowledging the massacre of Algerians.

8. There are reports of rising intolerance in France. A report by the Council of Europe (CoE) in early 2015 had warned that rising intolerance in France had spawned systematic problems with racism and hate speech, threatening ethnic and religious minorities in the country. 

9. Racist terminology is frequently used by elected officials. Over the past few years, far-right nationalist movements have gained momentum in Europe. The National Front rose to become the third most powerful party in French politics. Some French politicians have issued racist statements and encouraged xenophobia through their campaigns, slogans and speeches to gain political mileage.

10. An aggressive clampdown law banning headscarves has led to a charged, bigoted, atmosphere. The 2004 law implicitly directed at Muslim women, opened a heated national debate about the place of religion in public life. This debate grew more charged after France passed a 2011 law explicitly banning face veils from all public spaces and more recently when Mayors in several towns imposed a ban on the burkini. 

11. Officially, there’s been a decrease in the number of racist incidents. But that might not hold water. The French interior ministry released statistics suggesting a decrease in the number of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents during 2016, as compared to previous years. 

While the government took credit for the decrease, some commentators also attribute the improvement to the emergency imposed in the country following the November 2015 attacks that killed 130 people and wounded several others. 

12. Fall in the number of reported incidents might be because the number of previous incidents were relatively high. CCIF insists that the decrease is a result of a very high number of incidents and attacks that had taken place in 2015. 

13. There was a six-fold increase in Islamophobia after the Paris attacks. The spike occurred within three months of the attacks, according to the National Observatory of Islamophobia, a group linked to the CCIF. 

Anti-Muslim graffiti also showed up in many places. (AFP/Archive)

14. Women are often the main targets of bigotry. Around 80 percent of anti-Muslim acts in France are committed against women, said the COE report that was based on a September 2014 visit by COE’s human rights commissioner. The visit had taken place prior to the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 attacks in Paris. 

15. Chinese community in Paris seeks better protection. The Chinese immigrant community in Paris asked for better police protection after a Chinese tailor was beaten to death. The death called new attention to ethnic tensions in the French capital’s suburbs in September 2016.

Demonstrators hold signs at a rally of the Chinese community to raise awareness about recent racists attacks in Paris, France, September 4, 2016. (Reuters/Archive)

"The people here are angry. We can't feel relaxed in the street, and if we don't even get a basic welcome in the police station people start to wonder," protester 31-year-old Wang Yunzhou said. He was participating in a rally attended by 13,000 people in Paris against a crime wave targeting the Chinese community.

TRTWorld and agencies