George Floyd is dead and America is in flames. In France, too, our hearts are moved to tears and anger.
We mourn because, like you, we are tired of seeing African-American men, women, and children killed by the police year after year. We are angry because what has been happening in the United States mirrors our own experience in France. We simply talk about it less. And yet, in a country officially blind to skin color, where the word “race” was struck from its Constitution, a 2017 study by France’s independent agency on civil rights, Défenseur des droits, showed that a young man perceived to be Black or Arab has twenty times the chance of being stopped by French police. He is three times more likely to be the victim of insults or brutality during a police stop than the rest of the French population.
In France, the police kill, too. Adama Traoré, to name but one example, died of a heart attack in 2016 as the result of being held face down by three policemen who had stopped him to check his ID. Traoré was twenty-four years old. He had committed no crime. He wasn’t armed. He, too, told the police officers that he was having trouble breathing. Nevertheless, the first response of the public prosecutor was to cite a “very serious infection” from which Traoré was said to be suffering as the cause of death. The theory was subsequently contradicted by medical experts. Since then, opinions and second opinions have followed. Four years after his death, there is still no justice for Adama’s family and they continue to fight for his memory.
In 2005, after the accidental deaths of two teenagers – one Black, the other Arab – who had been chased by police, although they had done nothing wrong, massive riots in working-class neighborhoods shook the country for several weeks, leading to curfews similar to those we are now seeing in the United States. The riots raised the French public’s awareness about the reality of racial discrimination in France. Politicians made many promises as a result. But structurally, fifteen years later, nothing has changed.
George Floyd is dead and America is in flames. Because in the time of the Coronavirus racial inequalities are more visible than ever.
As we know, Blacks have paid the heaviest price of all Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the edge of Paris, in the same place the Olympics will be held in 2024, the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis has the highest population of people of African and Caribbean descent – that is, people originally from France’s former colonies. It is also the area with the highest poverty rate (twice that of the rest of France), the largest amount of public housing, which is often overcrowded, and the greatest number of “frontline workers” (cashiers, garbage collectors, nursing assistants, care workers, etc.), who have been especially hard hit during the Coronavirus outbreak. Seine-Saint-Denis is also a medical desert. It is where the death toll rose highest during the crisis, particularly because of preexisting conditions due to systemically poor access to healthcare. Just like in the United States.
During the lockdown, 17.9% of police stops in Seine-Saint-Denis ended in summons being issued versus only 5.9% nationally. Incidences of police violence and racist language against people of color were documented on social media with supporting videos. “But there was zero profiling in these police checks,” Laurent Nuñez, French junior interior minister, claimed in a recent interview with the newspaper Libération, explaining that law enforcement had to protect an area where the virus was especially widespread. In the same interview, Mr. Nuñez added that there “is no pervasive racism in the police force,” which is “diverse, just like French society.”
Placing responsibility for racially-motivated police violence on a handful of individuals alone deprives us of the opportunity to examine how these racial biases are present structurally, and so it deprives us of the opportunity to do anything about them.
George Floyd is dead and America is in flames. But we aren’t doing any better.
In response to numerous complaints and criticisms, the French government has expanded the use of onboard cameras. On the other hand, police unions have opposed providing obligatory receipts to those stopped for ID checks. And yet these receipts would offer some legal recourse to those subject to abusive stops. Currently, conservative congressmen want to pass a bill that prohibits filming or taking pictures of police, in order, they claim, to protect officers. As we have witnessed with the death of George Floyd, as we have seen with documented cases of police violence in France, the images caught by bystanders are often the only tangible evidence that remains.
The same destructive cocktail of class, race, the structural effects of racism and poverty, and police violence can be found in France and in the United States. So, yes, let us mourn the death of George Floyd, let us mourn the death of all the George Floyds. And, for those of us not living in the US, let us not forget what is going on here and to scrutinize the failings of our own society.
Translated by Joshua David Jordan
This text was first published in a different version by Mediapart.