The Black Lives Matter movement extended to France a few days after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The French protests have been fueled by similar tragic cases and have revived the denunciation of police brutality . Additional juridical elements in the investigation of the death of Adama Traoré – a 24 years old man killed during a police arrest in 2016 – came out and played a decisive role in the mobilizations. Investigations are still on-going to determine the implication of policemen in his death. June the 2nd, 20 000 protesters gathered in front of the courthouse in Paris despite the sanitary restrictions still in effect, following the call of the committee “Truth and Justice for Adama” (comité “Vérité et Justice pour Adama”). The crowd claimed justice for victims of police violence and denounced police impunity. A few days later, the 13th of June, an anti-racist walk gathered thousand people in Paris, while similar demonstrations took place in other cities such as Lyon, Lille and Marseille. The sister of Adama Traoré, Assa Traoré (who is also the spokesperson of the committee) has been at the forefront of these events and became the national leading figure of the movement .
Anti-racist slogans and protests: “Black Lives Matter also in France”
“Wherever you come from, whatever your skin colour, whatever your religion, whatever your sexual orientation, you cannot stay spectator against injustice, against murder, against police impunity” stated Assa Traoré during the spontaneous gathering of Paris, she qualified as “historical”. Among the crowd, the wish for “living together” and the solidarity with black people were two of the most repeated refrains. Several walkers carried posters saying “no justice, no peace”, “who can we call when the police kills?” and “Black Lives Matter also in France”. The protesters – many of whom were very young – wanted to express their support to what happened in the US and to bring light the French situation. Among the crowd, marchers denounced “white privileges” and vented their resentments towards “structural discriminations” in their daily life, from market employment discriminations, to insecurity they feel in the street because of systematic police control, sometimes leading to dramatic issues.
White Lives Matter: far right opposition during the protest in Paris
Counter protests took place in Paris led by far right activists from Génération Identitaire. Perched on the roofs of Hausmanian buildings they unfolded a banner stating “Justice for victims of anti-white racism. White Lives Matter”, under the boos of the crowd gathered in Place de la République. The banner remained visible for several minutes before being ripped off. This delayed response of the police forces strengthened the resentment of the crowd and the feeling of connivance between the two parts (the police and far right activists).
Another polemic occurred after the publication by the newspapers Valeurs Actuelles of anti-Semitic speech captured in a video during the walk. However, other newspapers present within the crowd said they did not hear anything and that if it happened it was an isolated act and did not reflect the general atmosphere on the protest. Moreover, the organizers of the walk, starting with Assa Traoré, immediately reacted during the protest and firmly condemned such words: “If anti-Semitic words have been pronounced today, we are all Christians, we are all Jews, we are all Muslims, we are all from every religion, we are all French!”.
Political reactions: the uncomfortable use of “race” in the French debate
The walk took place between the two rounds of the municipal elections, which were postponed to the 28th June because of the sanitary crisis. Political reactions to the movement were various and mitigated and might be understood in that particular context. While most politicians unanimously condemned racial segregation in the US, they were disinclined to recognize similar facts in France and denied the possibility of structural racism.
This ambivalence is reflected in the position of the movement of President Macron : his followers claim that they understand the massive protests in the US but reject the comparison with the French situation. For example, Hugues Renson, deputy of the majority in Paris declared “our republican model (the French one) is thankfully very different from the American segregationist past”. Within the government, Christophe Castaner, the Minister of Interior, has notably been (negatively) portrayed as a “tightrope walker”. He is criticized by both anti-racist associations who denounce police violence, and by the police unions who condemn his decision to ban the use of choke hold, considered a too dangerous “technique”. Some police unions symbolically threw out their weapons and handcuffs to express their disagreement. Finally, President Emmanuel Macron himself ambiguously targeted scholars who in his view propagate the “fracturing the Republic along racial lines” by comparing the American system to the French model of assimilation.
What is called the “ethnicization of the social question” has revealed profound cleavages within the French “left” about the ways to address “the race” question. If some agree with BLM, others express reservation, especially because some of the racist events happened when socialist President Francois Hollande was in power.
Unsurprisingly, right-wing groups vividly denounce the comparison with the US and use the sanitary restrictions to express their disagreement with the gatherings, while the far-right parties, especially the Rassemblement National, vehemently criticize BLM. A local representative of the Rassemblement National depicts the situation as “ the big replacement” (Le grand remplacement) and denounces the protests as an anti-white movement targeting police officers. Far right politicians also claim their support to police officers whom they consider unjustly accused. Their leader Marine Le Pen has also criticized the leftist leader Jean Luc Mélenchon for the “importation of racial wars on the national territory”.
French spatial segregation: the banlieues case
As reported in Le Monde, the lockdown period has seen an increasing number of police abuses and brutalities, leading to a widening gap between police and some fringes of the French population. The most vulnerable groups to COVID19 belong to working or lower classes who live in the poor suburbs or “banlieues” and have African or Arab background. They suffer from negative representations associated with the banlieues, which have been particularly affected by the covid restrictions.
In these circumstances, there is also a religious dimension to the French BLM. Muslims are part of the protestors but the racial marker trumps the the religious one. For instance, the biggest French Muslim Federations did not release public declarations nor commented on the situation publicly.
An interesting debate to illustrate the equivocal French reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement might be a discussion on art. When a mural graffiti, portraying Adama Traoré and George Floyd, triggered backlashes and even threats (such painting stigmatizes all police officers and has to be destroyed according to some ), some newspapers questioned the “deafening silence” of French Museums on the topic.
Along the same line, French Museums are reluctant to revisit the colonial past of their collections through the lenses of contemporary events, because of the supposed universality of art.
In sum, while protests are massive, ambiguity on the racial question is very present, including within Muslim circles. It raises the question of the future and sustainability of the French BLM which is seen by some as the “metoo ” of antiracism.