The racial fissures in French society are a feature, not a bug.
In a country where the police talk more about their rights than their duties, what area of freedom can exist for citizens? - Maurice Rajsfus, French journalist and Holocaust survivor.
The recent outpouring of videos showing French police beating down a black man in his recording studio and calling him the “N” word is just the latest of several episodes involving police brutality.
The images have made international headlines and again placed France under the spotlight for the wrong reasons. But the videos we see today are not an indication that police brutality is on the rise in France – it's just that technology and the internet allow for greater documentation and distribution of these crimes.
The state institution we know today as the National Police was in fact a product of the fascist Vichy regime. It was in 1941 that Philippe Petain, head of the Vichy regime, signed the decree that established a centralised police under his command; a change from the hundreds of city police entities throughout the country that posed a potential threat to his regime.
As the domestic tool to apply the regime’s policies towards Jews – and to crack down on any opposition – the National Police's first success was not to fight the Nazi occupier but to work for it.
Perhaps the most notorious figure of the French Police’s active collaboration was Rene Bousquet and his letter to Karl Oberg, the leader of the SS in France. The end result was the deportation and murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews including many children.
The police crimes under Vichy could have been an accident of history, but not only did the decision-makers get away with murder, but the National Police was never purged and went on to unleash its brutality on thousands of others.
On October 17th, 1961, between 200 and 300 peaceful Algerian demonstrators against the occupation of their country were brutally repressed and killed by policemen under the orders of Prefect Maurice Papon. According to testimonies compiled by historians like Jean Luc Einnaudi, there were so many bodies that they were literally dumped into the river.
Proof that racism was already ingrained in the culture of the French Police, the police prefect who ordered the killing of Algerians in 1961 was himself the general secretary of the prefecture of Gironde in charge of Jewish Affairs and, ultimately responsible for the deportation of thousands of Jews.
The massacre of 87 Black men and women by the Gendarmerie in May 1967 in the island of Guadeloupe, the beating to death of Mohammed Diab in 1970, the “accidental shooting” of Lahouari Ben Mohammed by a policeman who had initially declared “I feel trigger happy tonight”, of Malik Oussekine in 1987, of Wissam El Yamni in 2011, the rape of Theo in 2017, but most notoriously, the death of Zyad and Bounna in 2005 have taught us the hard way that police impunity is the norm in France, and racism is as French as Camembert cheese.
If it keeps happening, it's systemic
In 2015, the 4,000 plus police raids during the state of emergency had overwhelmingly traumatised Muslims in their homes, businesses and places of worship (99 percent of the victims were Muslims according to France’s Ombudsman) and laid bare that even children in their homes are not safe from the Police.
I once told a TRT World anchor that it is not a good time to be a minority in France. In light of these killings that almost exclusively take Black and Arab lives, I should have answered that there is never a good time to be a minority in France.
The French Revolution, the Enlightenment and the proclamation of the French Republic never stopped France from playing a major role in the slave trade, colonisation and neocolonial wars against Africans and Asians. And if a President of the Republic dismisses France’s historic crimes and declares he is opposed to “repentance” and pushes for the adoption of a law that glorifies France’s colonial past, it means that structural white supremacy, partially or fully – depending on what side of the fence you are born – is an integral part of our political landscape.
Republican ideals are one thing but we can only judge people and institutions according to their track records. For instance, Blacks and Arabs are 20 times more likely of being racially profiled by the police, which led to a historic sanctioning of the state by the Court of Appeals in Paris, yet a socialist prime minister took the matter to court to reverse the decision. Why?
When the Minister of Interior Michele Alliot Marie praised "the expertise of our security forces, which is recognised around the world" to justify providing tactical support to the Ben Ali dictatorship during the Tunisian revolution, she was aware that this expertise was acquired in the French Banlieues which act as laboratories of repression with its Black and Arab residents as its guinea pigs.
The French Police is not only a clear symbol of the country’s centralised and authoritarian political regime (fifth Republic, 1958) but also an illustration of its drift towards more authoritarianism and disdain for accountability and reform.
For instance, the supervising body of the police that is expected to hold it accountable, the IGPN (Inspection Generale des Services) is itself composed of former police officers. How can a self-regulated institution reform itself?
France’s majority cannot complain about police brutality today as if it’s a new phenomenon. The institution has always been brutal, racist and above accountability.
The videos of brutalised Yellow Vests did not reveal anything, they just showed that the violence people stayed quiet about when it targeted Blacks and Arabs, was just waiting to be unleashed on the majority white population.
No one can take seriously the government’s attempt to dismiss racism in the French Police and reduce it into unfortunate – perhaps “shameful – but isolated events. It is no coincidence that Emmanuel Macron showed his true colours when he instigated the global security bill that attempted to further shield the police from accountability by prohibiting its filming.
That's the same man who declared his rejection of the term “police brutality”, later doubled down by his Minister of Interior Gerald Darmanin (himself under investigation for rape and sexual harassment) who declared “I am on the side of the police” as if to say “I am with them against the people”.
If we are serious about questioning the French Police, then we ought to question the regime it serves, and which gives it a blank cheque. The French Police will not reform itself nor will the authoritarian regime it is defending demand it.
As a sign that state authoritarianism cannot be separated from racism, the infamous Article 24 of the Global Security bill (which will prohibit filming the police) has been removed but is being predicted to slide into the bill against 'separatism' (which targets Muslims) as "Article 25".
Will the thousands of French people who took to the street against the Global Security bill, march against the bill that targets Muslims and hence make the connection between racism and state repression?
I will go as far as saying "no" with the sincere wish that I am wrong.
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