Several public officials deny the mere existence of widespread police violence in France. This denial reflects attempts to shut down the growing public conversation about police’s illegal of use of force, which has been given more prominence in mainstream media since the Mouvement des Gilets Jaunes in 2018. In March 2019, during the Grand Débat National in Gréoux-les-bains, French President Emmanuel Macron told the audience: “Don’t talk about police repression or violence. These words are unacceptable in a rule of law. You talk about repression. I say that this is untrue”. Similarly, during an interview with France-Inter in March 2019, Christopher Castaner, the President of the group La République en Marche (LREM) at the National Assembly, said: “We must stop talking about police violence“. The audition of Gérald Darmanin, the French Minister of Interior, in front of the National Assembly’s Law Commission in November 2020 also encapsulates a tendency to deny and minimise people’s experiences of police violence and racism, in order to be seen to defend the police.
While images of police violence have been circulated than ever since the Gilets Jaunes Mouvement, racialised groups have, for a long time, denounced police violence targeted against them. Police violence and discrimination is present in the everyday encounters between law enforcement officers and racialised people, just one small part of an enduring systemic racism. Yet, there is a wider denial of racism in France. Under the guise of the elusive concept of universalism, many in politics and civil society avoid a conversation about racial injustice in France.
When faced with the undeniable images of police brutality, the officers involved are framed as ‘bad apples’. The idea that police violence might be more systemic is brushed aside. This attempt to shut down the conversation might be seen as part of the wider authoritarian drift of government and perhaps many other European governments in 2020. The Global Security Bill, recently introduced into parliament, has raised concerns amongst various organisations including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, due to the restrictions it will place on people’s right to film the police (A l’air libre 12/01/2021; The New York Times 15/11/2020; The New York Times 25/11/2020; Médiapart 21/11/2020; Médiapart 24/11/2020; The Guardian 09/11/2020; Libération 24/11/2020).
Police violence: a systemic issue?
Despite this denial, the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers against protesters, racialised groups (including homeless asylum seekers) in France has been widely documented in recent years (Libération 24/11/2020; Human Rights Watch 25/11/2020; Ouest-France 26/11/2020; À l’air libre 13/01/2021). Cases – such as the violence against music producer Michel Zecler in November 2020, against environmental activist Keziah Nuissier in July 2020 or against Théodore Luhaka in 2017 – illustrate the relationship between police violence and racism in France.
The attempts to shut down the voices of survivors of police violence have been met by resistance from some in civil society, who have taken to social media to document and report instances of police violence. People used these platforms to tell their stories. For instance, journalist David Dufresne used Twitter to compile instances of police violence during various protests across France under #AllôPlaceBeauvau? From the start of the Gilets Jaunes Mouvement until last month.
This violence has been facilitated by widespread impunity. In #ÂlloPlaceBeauvau, amongst 73 complaints monitored, there were only 5 convictions. Several people have the perception that the words of police officers are more valuable than those of civilians. The independence, impartiality and efficiency of the current accountability mechanisms have also been regularly questioned (Médipart 12/06/2020; Libération 24/11/2020; Ouest-France 26/11/2020). The numerous campaigns on social media to demand justice – such as #JusticepourAdama, #QuiNousProtègeDeLaPolice or #PasDeJusticePasDePaix. Each illustrates an example of how the police are rarely held accountable for their misconduct.
Ways forward and further questions
The current conversation in France shows how important it is to systematically collect data about instances of police violence, including the ethnicity of the victims. The lack of comprehensive data opens room for public mistrust. This debate also points to the necessity of having external, independent and impartial accountability mechanisms to which survivors and allies can refer to. These external mechanisms would also allow whistleblowers within the police to provide evidence of misconduct without the fear of negative repercussions. Additionally, the conversation demonstrates the value of upholding people’s right to film the police. Indeed, as independent journalist David Perrotin maintains, as a result of the widespread denial of police violence, ‘when there are no images, victims are not believed’. For instance, the initial attempts to cover up the aggression of music producer Michel Zecler in November 2020 only failed thanks to CCTV footage that police officers were not aware of until after they had made their written statements.
This discussion also raises questions about the social contract and the type of society we want to live in. The increased visibility of police violence when it moved to white bodies during the Gilets Jaunes Mouvement, compared to the certain ambivalence or tolerance amongst many people when this violence was directed to racialised groups – shows that there is an urgent need to discuss racial injustice. Only by doing so can France live up to its principles of equality, fraternity, and liberty.
Written by a QCEA supporter who asked to remain anonymous due to her employment situation
QCEA Publications on police violence and racism in Europe