Reflections on the Problem of Racism in France

Reflections on the Problem of Racism in France

Abdellali Hajjat

Since the 100,000 participants in the 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism, French activists fighting against racism and police brutality had never managed to gather so many demonstrators in the streets of Paris. This was done with the June 2 rally and the June 13, 2020 demonstrations organized by the Truth and Justice for Adama Traoré Committee. The acceleration of anti-racist temporality in France, and throughout the world, following the murder of George Floyd raises certain central questions in the analysis of racisms and anti-racisms. Subject to future research that will undoubtedly shed light on the specific nature of the anti-racist moment we are living through, I would like to discuss a few things that may be useful to the public debate.

Anti-Racist Internationalism?
How can one explain that the murder of an African American by a white police officer in the United States provoked such mobilizations in the United States and around the world? Unfortunately, these kinds of murders are not uncommon in the United States (and France), and each of them does not necessarily provoke national or international reactions. It is surely impossible to give a full answer to this question, as it is to that of the outbreak of the Arab revolutions following the suicide of the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010. Some historical moments are truly unpredictable and unsuspected, even a few weeks before, but several favorable factors undoubtedly played their part.

From this point of view, the current #GeorgeFloyd anti-racist sequence can be compared to the explosion of the #MeToo movement following the Weinstein affair in 2017. According to anthropologist James C. Scott, a distinction must be made between “public transcript”– which the subalterns make in public in a strategic way to cope with domination – and “hidden transcript”– which the subalterns do not dare to speak out in public under pain of punishment or even violence, but which conceals their subaltern critical view of a world that confines them to the bottom of the hierarchy (economic, sexual or racial). The #MeToo and #GeorgeFloyd movements correspond to the revelation of feminist and anti-racist hidden transcripts on a planetary scale. What used to be concealed by victims of sexism or racism is now publicly displayed, defying the direct consequences of such a revelation (threats, lawsuits, etc.).

The global dimension owes much to the emergence of the counter-publics of social networks. One recalls that Michel de Certeau had analyzed May 68 as “imprisoned speech that has been freed”. Since the advent of social networks, feminist and anti-racist advocacies have become pervasive and perennial, from activist accounts to the accounts of individuals with no political experience. But these words would be meaningless if they did not rely on transnational “dormant networks” of activists, journalists, artists, politicians, researchers, etc., who keep the flame of feminism and/or anti-racism burning in the face of the reactionary offensive of the 2010’s (materialized by the coming to power of openly reactionary parties).

Moreover, the legitimacy of anti-racist mobilizations in the United States, in particular those of black movements, acquired after hundreds of years of struggles often repressed in blood, helps to legitimize anti-racist mobilizations in Europe and gives them a new lease of life. Although there is no transnational anti-racist organization as such, there is a clear internationalization of the anti-racist cause. But this transnational process might not have occurred without the denial of police racism by some governments, notably in the United States and France. The radicalization of antiracist demands goes hand in hand with the unconditional refusal of recognition of racism, or even the assumed claim of racism by the highest authorities of the State.

Unlikely new alliance?
The boundaries between the movements against police brutality, the antiracist movement and identity politics are porous. Since the 1960s, the movement against police brutality has had the greatest difficulty in gaining legitimacy in the French public arena, and even in social movements. The more or less organized, more or less ephemeral movements that challenge police brutality face either the strong reluctance of the main left-wing organizations to defend “impure” victims (some with a criminal record), or the total denial of racism and police brutality by law enforcement institutions, first and foremost the National Police General Inspection (IGPN) or the National Gendarmerie General Inspection (IGGN) – both administrations, the first from the Ministry of Interior, the second from the Ministry of Defense, are supposed to control the activities of police officers.

It is only recently, following the use of anti-terrorist legislation against left-wing activists and the violent repression of the Yellow Vests, that the cause seems to be spreading beyond the working-class neighborhoods where it was hitherto confined. But this recent and relative enlargement can create tensions: some analyze police violence above all as the will to power of the right hand of the neo-liberal state; others as the expression of a racist state; others finally as the illustration of a specific racism, be it anti-black or anti-North Africans. Is there only one of these dimensions to current police violence? Nothing is less certain. The reality is often more complex than it seems, and the deaths caused by police brutality are the result not only of institutional racism, targeting all ethnic minorities, but also of a way of ruling the working classes and of the repression of political opponents. In other words, it seems difficult to cut through the social reality and focus on either the economic or the racial dimension. The intertwining social relations of class, race and gender structure (also) police practices.

It is surely because it is developing an analysis that is both anti-racist and against police brutality that the Truth and Justice for Adama Traoré Committee has managed to gather a large number of people around them. In 1983, the success of the March for Equality and Against Racism was the result of an unlikely alliance, unimaginable today, between the young North Africans of the organization SOS Avenir Minguettes (in the working-class suburb of Lyon), left-wing Christians (organization called Cimade), support associations, movements of young immigrants, some members of the socialist government and some journalists from the mainstream public media.

We may be witnessing an new unlikely alliance between the Traoré family and some residents of Beaumont-sur-Oise, support activists from elsewhere (including former members of the Immigration and Banlieue Movement [MIB]), a few journalists from small and large media outlets and, what is new, many artists, underground or very well known, committed to the support committee. The tide seems to be turning in favor of the antiracist cause, but the experience of the 1983 March calls for caution: it was followed by a cultural talk about the Franco-Arab identity that did not lead to concrete measures against police racism.

The demonstration is certainly an important way to “make numbers” and to convince. But it is not (only) by demonstrating that one wins trials for voluntary or involuntary manslaughter against law enforcement officers. In this perspective, the committee has carried out exemplary work, in the wake of the MIB’s militant practices. Since the end of the 2000s, some famous antiracist movements have lost interest in the field, particularly in courtrooms, in favor of television studios and university halls. The legal battle at Beaumont-sur-Oise shows that the balance of power is not only ideological: it lies at the very heart of legal proceedings and medical expert reports. The rehabilitation of this mode of action, costly in time, energy and money, whose positive outcome is possible but unlikely–bearing in mind that a judicial defeat does not necessarily mean a political defeat–is undoubtedly a striking aspect of the contemporary antiracist revival.

Police Impunity
There is no need here to recall the numerous sociological and historical surveys on the prevalence of racist ideology and practices within the police force, both in the United States and in France. The focus is rightly placed on the most violent practices, but we must not forget the diversity of police practices that can amount to harassment, often invisible and unpublicized (repeated identity checks, etc.). And this has to be linked to racist impunity in general. Not only does the judicial treatment of racist offences most often result in no-prosecution (which raises the question of the role of the judiciary in the repression of racism), but racist discourse has become increasingly legitimate in the French public arena.

Through a lasting alliance between some major media owners, Parisian publishing houses, pundits and politicians, it is not socially and economically costly to make racist statements, particularly Islamophobic ones. Even when journalists are convicted by the courts for inciting racial hatred, their editors continue to roll out the red carpet for their racist speech. In the end, the police are only the magnifying mirror of French society. One doesn’t see why it would be spared by the contemporary far-right wave.

But it is true that police practices are particularly conducive to the permeation of racial categories and identity assignment. One is not racist because one is a police officer, but one becomes a racist police officer. For example, it is no doubt useful to recall that, contrary to what is often heard, ethnic statistics already exist in France. The Recorded Offences Processing System (STIC) and the Criminal Records Processing System (TAJ), databases of several million people, victims or suspects of offences, contain a racial filter with twelve different “types” (White or Caucasian, Mediterranean, Gypsy, Middle Eastern, North African, Asian or Eurasian, Amerindian, Indian, Mesoamerican, Black, Polynesian, Melanesian-Kanak). The term “negroid type” is regularly used in police reports. In other words, police officers and gendarmes use racial categories every day to work. Despite the recommendations of the administration responsible for data protection (IT and Liberty National Council), this racial information has never been suppressed. It is therefore no coincidence that law enforcement perceives the world through racial categories of understanding: their core business is the identification and arrest of suspects on the basis of racial “types”.

However, the peculiarity of police impunity lies in the legitimate use of physical force and, from this point of view, the police are supposed to be accountable. What one does not ask of racist journalists must be demanded from state representatives. It should simply be remembered that the movements against police brutality demand only one thing: equality before the law granted by the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Even if a person has committed a crime, that crime does not deserve to be killed on the spot. Even if a notorious offender is on the run, he does not deserve to be killed at the end of a chase.Yet this simple claim faces the wall of denial from police authorities. As several sociological studies have shown, police brutality is rarely condemned. What is at stake is the legitimacy of the use of physical violence. Two conceptions face each other. On hand, according to what I call “state solidarity”, the recognition of police brutality would undermine the legitimacy of the state and risk provoking the anger of police officers who, through a particular phenomenon of hierarchical inversion, frightens those in power. On the other hand, on the contrary, such recognition would lead to an increase in the legitimacy of (good) policing by making a clear distinction between legitimate and illegitimate police practices. By showing that its police are accountable to the citizens, the state is strengthened.

This second vision of the police has never become established in France, despite the recommendations of the National Commission on Security Ethics (2000-2008) and the body that took over its prerogatives, the Defender of Rights. Indeed, the only concession of the Ministry of the Interior is to stop the “bottleneck key” technique, but it “compensates” for this decision by promising to generalize the use of the taser, a supposedly non-lethal weapon. Although politically important, the recommendations of the Defender of Rights have no legal significance. Both the internal law enforcement control structures (IGPN and IGGN) and the courts rarely convict police officers or gendarmes accused of violent police misconduct.

It seems that there is a particular area of state activity where the executive power is enforced without real control of the judiciary, not only by the IGPN and the IGGN, which are not independent of their hierarchy (Ministry of the Interior and Defense), but also by the criminal courts. In other words, the separation of powers and the control of one power over another are decoys in this type of case, which raises the question of the reality of the rule of law. On this point, however, a postcolonial analogy should be used: failure to respect the separation of powers was one of the characteristics of the colonial situation. The colonial authorities could exercise their violence against the colonized without fear of real sanctions. Without confusing the contemporary situation with the colonial situation, today’s police impunity clearly marks the postcolonial extension of the past.

This is perhaps one of the main differences between France and the United States. The French denial of police brutality is, among other things, linked to the centralization of police power. Although there are municipal police forces, they are essentially national institutions (police and gendarmerie) accountable only to their ministries. When one challenges police brutality, one challenges the centralized state. The US situation is relatively different, which makes it possible to develop quite innovative claims. Indeed, law enforcement is decentralized (federal, state, county and municipal) and municipal police forces are under the authority of mayors. Thus, the chief of police is appointed by the mayor, who is elected by the citizens of the city. Similarly, the district attorney is also elected by the citizens. In some circumstances, a municipal coalition may be able to transform the local balance of power and impose a new vision of policing. This seems to be what is happening in the Minneapolis City Council, which, in an unprecedented move, has decided to abolish the police department and replace it with prevention and public safety initiatives. This is impossible in France for institutional reasons.


Abdellali Hajjat is Associate Professor of Sociology, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

Image: Mural by “Collectif Art” in tribute to Adama Traoré and George Floyd, both killed by police officers, Stains (north of Paris), June 2020.