Police and French youth: A long and brutal history

‘Rapist, killer cops’: protesters march in Paris’s 18th arrondisement. Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Parisians took to the streets in the city’s 18th arrondissement to protest the latest incident of police brutality in France. Protesters clashed with police, who used tear gas to repel the crowds.

This latest flare-up came after a week of simmering tensions in the suburbs over yet another violent interaction between the police and a young black man, known as “Theo L”, who was allegedly beaten and raped by a group of officers in suburban Aulnay-sous-Bois on February 3.

French President François Hollande visited Theo in hospital, and has promised that justice will be served. The four officers involved have been suspended; one has been charged with rape, the other three with assault.

The list of violent and sometimes fatal interactions between police forces and youth in France is long.

L’Affaire Theo” comes after the death of Adama Traore in July 2016. He was detained by the police in Beaumont-sur-Oise, north of Paris, after he resisted an ID check and died while in police custody.

An infection was initially blamed but later examinations indicated he died of asphyxiation.

Both incidents led to widespread protest. Most have been peaceful, but a number of cars were burned, recalling the riots that took place in 2005 after the deaths of two young men trying to escape the police in the suburbs of Paris.

A familiar pattern

The “Theo L.” case is only the latest in a long series of violent interactions between the police and minority youth. Whether the accusations are proven or not, publicised or not, for decades they have been part of the image of the low-income suburbs that French officials refer to as “sensitive”.

The media coverage is also something that stretches all the way back to the “hot summer” of 1981 in the area of high-rises called Les Minguettes, south of Lyon.

The incidents follow a familiar pattern: they start with an incident involving police officers and youth. Tensions rise, demonstrations and protests take place, all with the expectation that a riot will soon break out. After the fact, the violence is blamed on the youth.

At best, such events are followed by small measures designed to show that the government has taken into account the excesses committed by certain officers, and commitments to improve oversight. At worst, as during the 2005 riots, the authorities’ unfailing support for the police marks the end of the episode.

Cars were set alight across the suburbs in the 2005 riots. Reuters

Since 2002 there has been no substantive public-policy response that seeks to directly address the underlying causes of these longstanding tensions.

Government in paralysis

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of diagnoses: studies, NGO reports, work by France’s Defender of Rights, and even an officer-training conference organised by the national police have clearly shown that the policies of repression and “zero tolerance” adopted during the previous decade are dead ends.

Up to now, relations with certain sectors of the population have been seen only through the prism of management and control. In the so-called “sensitive” districts, the police are de facto occupying forces, and even a “gang among other gangs” – an expression used by the police themselves – rather than responding to requests by the public for security.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, François Hollande spoke of putting youth, and in particular those in difficult areas, at the heart of public policy. He also proposed requiring that the police provide written proof to all those from whom they demanded IDs.

Yet little or nothing has been done to stop the vicious circle of pressure and retaliation that drags both young people and the police into a logic of permanent tensions and recurring confrontations.

The Socialist government – fearful of being labeled as lax by the right and extreme right – is totally paralysed, and has essentially taken up the traditional themes of authority and inflexibility. Like earlier governments, it doesn’t hesitate to conflate terrorist activity and everyday crime.

Masking structural weaknesses

As a result, there is a tendency to forgive almost all police misconduct almost systematically and a priori, on the grounds that their profession is difficult. This is certainly true, but the continued use of force masks the structural weaknesses of governments struggling to find solutions other than the use of force to crises in sensitive neighbourhoods.

The tacit protection enjoyed by the police is offered in exchange for their mission to control public protests – as during last year’s labour-law unrest – or when individuals are singled out as being a potential problem.

Gendarmes rush in during the 2016 labour-law protests in Paris. Stephane Mahe/Reuters

This serves the interests of the police hierarchy – as illustrated by the omnipresence of union representatives in the media and in ministerial cabinet – even as it puts officers on the ground in an untenable position. This inter-police conflict was at the heart of last fall’s protests by beat cops after four officers were attacked on October 8, and one seriously injured.

Inside French police stations the relative clemency enjoyed by officers isn’t enough for the most authoritative. At the same time, those who dreamt of another way of policing feel only regret, especially when they’re forced to remain silent so as not to break police solidarity.

Indeed, far from being a single, uniform whole, the French police are torn by internal dissent. The blunders and excesses committed by some officers have an immense impact on the daily work of others, and puts pressure on them to enter into the logic of confrontation.

Substantial changes for the police

Will future governments continue to try to control low-income neighborhoods through the use of an occupying police force?

The fear of riots continues, but it is not enough to mobilise those who make public policy. Cynically, some may say that unrest will serve unify public support for the government. So far, rapid-response police units have managed to control minor incidents without hurting too many victims.

However, some elements could finally lead to the right questions being asked about policing and public security.

Increasingly, the young people who are victims of police “blunders” have no prior record. This was the case with Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna, the two teenagers whose death in Clichy-sous-Bois sparked the conflagration of 2005. That is also true for Theo L. When the victims have no criminal records, it’s much more difficult for the police to justify their mistreatment.

A protest tag calls for justice in the case that led to the 2005 unrest. Stephane Mahe/Reuters

The growing use of CCTV cameras and the widespread availability of video are another source of concern for police officers who want to abuse their powers – their actions can now be recorded. The images of the high-school student struck by a riot policeman during the 2016 labour-law demonstrations, or those taken after Theo’s, arrest speak louder than even eyewitness accounts.

There are an increasing number of ways that the public can reach out to authorities able and willing to condemn police misconduct, circumventing the need to lodge a complaint at a police station, through the European Court of Human Rights, France’s Defender of Rights, the use of civil courts, and the creation of organisations by youth who no longer accept how they are treated.

Both the police hierarchy and governments must take into account these changes, which will require a profound rethinking of how police forces operate. If ethics have not succeeded in reining in some officers who repeatedly resort to violence, perhaps the law will eventually succeed in doing so.


This piece is the first in an ongoing series on police brutality worldwide. It was translated from the French by Leighton Kille.

This article was originally published in French

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