Police brutality and racism highlight France’s attachment to ideals

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France has a historic heritage of promoting and protecting human rights and has put in place many mechanisms to this end. But that legacy has come under closer scrutiny in recent weeks.

At the end of November, citizens captured a video of the Parisian police violently abducting homeless people from the central square of the Republic. Days later, police officers were caught by security cameras beating a music producer for not wearing a face mask.

At the same time, the government introduced a controversial bill that would have punished those who film the police with malicious intent. This sparked mass protests, which caused the government to back down and promise to rewrite the bill.

Despite the withdrawal of the bill, France’s vision as a human rights defender increasingly belies reality. Now, advocates hope the state will use the break to recalibrate, to be the human rights model it claims to be.

“France aims to become a leader in human rights, but there is a big difference between this idea and reality,” explains sociologist Marie-Hélène Bacqué. “And because he calls himself a leader of human rights, each time the French state does something that goes against human rights, the gap appears even greater.

When Dieu Pabu Mpenyi has been arrested by police in the past, it is usually at night, as he returns home from basketball practice, his slick jeans swapped for sweatpants, with friends. or alone.
“They see a black man walking at night, they automatically think that I am going to be aggressive,” explains Mr. Pabu Mpenyi, who lives in the Paris suburb of Villepinte.

At just 17, he has had enough interactions with the police to know he needs to keep copies of his ID on his phone and remain calm, even arrogant, in order to show that he not afraid. But he knows that such interactions can quickly escalate. His older brother has already landed in police custody for an incident he was not even present.

“These moments with the police have traumatized me and I am afraid for my brothers,” said Mr. Pabu Mpenyi, a mid-12-year-old child whose parents came to France from Angola in 2002. “Which scares me the most is when there isn’t. cameras, the police can say whatever they want behind your back and you have no defense.

The question of the use of images of police incidents in France has been the subject of a large debate in recent weeks. At the end of November, citizens captured a video of the Parisian police violently abducting homeless people from the central square of the Republic, using tear gas and batons. A few days later, four police officers were captured by security cameras beating music producer Michel Zecler as he left his studio, for not wearing a face mask.

Music producer Michel Zecler is on his way to the Inspectorate General of the National Police, known by its French acronym IGPN, in Paris, November 26, 2020. French Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin has ordered the suspension of several police officers Parisians after the publication of screening videos they beat Mr. Zecler and used tear gas against him for no apparent reason.

Protests have rocked the country for the past two weekends, as hundreds of thousands of people called on the government to crack down on police brutality and end a controversial national security bill that would have punished those who film the police with malicious intent. The government has since backed down and promised to rewrite the bill.

France has a historic heritage of promoting and protecting human rights and has put in place many mechanisms to this end. But as citizens continue to film examples of police brutality, France’s view as a human rights defender increasingly belies reality. Now, advocates hope the state will use the break to recalibrate, so as to be the human rights model it claims to be.

“France aims to become a leader in human rights, but there is a big difference between this idea and reality”, explains Marie-Hélène Bacqué, professor of sociology and urban studies at the University. Paris Nanterre. “And because he calls himself a leader of human rights, each time the French state does something that goes against human rights, the gap appears even greater.

“Bruises to your sense of self”

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, signed in 1789 during the French Revolution, defined popular conceptions of individual freedoms throughout the world. Making France a “country of human rights” has often been used by the state to promote itself and by the public to criticize the government.

But while the state actively supports several United Nations and European Union resolutions on human rights, poverty and the elimination of religious discrimination, some experts question whether the concept of France as that human rights leader is outdated and elitist.

The country has yet to fully assimilate its colonial past, although President Emmanuel Macron is the first French president to call it a “crime against humanity”. And France continues to struggle to provide the same opportunities to its racial minority groups, especially in North Africa. A 1950s housing policy for temporary immigrants, which separated many North Africans on the outskirts of cities, created inequalities still felt today by immigrant groups and their descendants.

In a 2016 study of 20,000 people by the French Institute for Demographic Studies, immigrants of African descent – many of whom were naturalized citizens – said that even though they felt French, they did not feel perceived like French by others. Separate studies have shown that visible minorities are more likely to experience discrimination in the labor and housing markets.

The promotion of secularism by France, or secularism, adds another layer to the discrimination they face, as many feel unfairly targeted by the law, including a new bill against Islamist separatism. But since France does not allow census data based on ethnicity or religion, it has been difficult for the state to fully grasp the extent of the discrimination some people face. It was even more difficult to implement policies to address subsequent inequalities.

Racial discrimination within the French police only added to the flames of the fire. Sebastian Roché, a sociologist who studies police and security at the National Center for Scientific Research, has conducted a series of studies over the past decade on the relationship between the police and minorities, especially young people. All of them showed that the police were more likely to discriminate against young people because of the color of their skin.

“The authorities are trying to minimize things, to say that it is a problem of a few individuals”, explains Mr. Roché. “But studies show that there is a systemic problem of racism and violence in the French police.”

Piroo, a Tunisian-French man from the Sartrouville suburb who goes by an assumed name to protect his privacy, had many interactions with the French police while growing up. He was beaten, tear gas and cursed with the worst racial slurs. Once, after a simple ID card check went awry, he and his friends were driven to a nearby forest in a police car, dropped into the woods, and told to find their way home.

These types of incidents, says Piroo, who now runs a nonprofit organization to involve young people from the Paris suburbs in community projects, create a sense of alienation for young people, who are often second-generation French and remiss. already questioning their sense of belonging and identity.

“These physical bruises [by police] go away, but the bruises to your sense of yourself stay with you for a long time, ”he says. “If you’re young and already lost, you might start to wonder why I live in a country that doesn’t want me? Why did my parents bring me here? And some will respond to violence with violence.

A chance for change?

Race-related police brutality may be catching the attention of the French public, but the country has experienced a wider level of police violence in recent years, which has highlighted his record as a human rights defender. humans.

The French police watchdog of the IGPN recorded more than 300 complaints of police abuse last year linked to the protest movement of the yellow vests. Experts say the level of injuries and deaths during the height of the movement from December 2018 to May 2019 – 30 mutilations and two deaths – is most linked to a protracted protest since the unrest of May 1968, which rocked the world. country.


Tear gas floats around a riot police officer during a protest against a bill that would criminalize the dissemination of an image of the face of a police officer, in Nantes, France, November 27, 2020.

This is in part due to the way the French police are now armed. Over the past decade, city police have more generally used rubber bullets and grenades to maintain order. In addition, plainclothes agents have joined the public order operations and are equipped with similar weapons.

This, along with the separatism and national security bills – although the latter is on the verge of being rewritten – has been labeled by critics of the president as a move towards more repressive leadership, which employs policies that go against the fundamental French values ​​of freedom, fraternity, equality and secularism.

In the midst of back-to-back protest weekends, Mr Macron spoke to the media about the public’s concerns. He said the government would create a platform for citizens to report discrimination in January, and told children born to immigrant parents that “their story is part of [France’s] the story. He said citizens will continue to have the right to film police and plans a summit next month to help build trust between citizens and police.

The French president has indicated that he has the political will to deal with recent episodes of racism in France. But experts say the country’s inequality problems are systemic and solutions won’t come overnight.

“Sir. Macron has a very theoretical vision of racism which has nothing to do with the reality of society, ”explains Jean-François Leguil Bayart, professor of anthropology and sociology at the Institute of Higher Studies in Geneva. “Regarding the real level of discrimination, the French government is in total denial.”

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