On February 2nd, outside of a public housing project in the Paris suburb of Aulney-sous-Bois, a French born man of African descent known only as Theo tried to intervene as a friend was arguing with four police officers. The quarrel began when the officers claimed they, “heard a warning cry to make local drug dealers aware of their presence”.
The 22 year old community worker, who reportedly had no criminal record and whose surname has been withheld, was arrested on the spot. Unfortunately, this would be the least of the indignities that he would face that day.
As Theo later described it to his lawyers, “They put handcuffs on me and then they told me to sit down. They sprayed tear gas in my face and then I had a pain in my buttocks. My trousers were lowered. I was in serious pain.”
Soon after his arrest, Theo was rushed to hospital in need of emergency surgery. The young man had suffered a beating and injuries to his rectum, apparently from a police baton, as he was being detained. Police at first claimed that the sexual assault was accidental.
Three of the four officers have since been charged with assault and one has been charged with rape. As might have been expected, the suburbs of major French cities, where most of France’s population of immigrants live (although it should be noted that many of them are third and fourth generation French born), exploded in protest with predictably destructive results. The unrest later spread from the suburbs, called banlieues, to the center of Paris and other municipalities.
Similar to widespread disruptions in 2005 after two innocent teenage boys were electrocuted trying to escape from police, cars have been set ablaze and other property damage has occurred. Scores of arrests have been made and tear gas has been fired by police to disperse angry crowds, who feel that their communities are unfairly targeted for police harassment.
As reporter Don Murray of Canada’s national broadcaster the CBC had it explained to him by a another young man in the wake of the 2005 uprising, “Liberty, equality, fraternity – those words have no value here. They only have value in the center of Paris. Liberty – you go out and the police stop you five or six times a day. Equality – when you try to find work, you don’t have the same chance as someone in a rich district of Paris. Fraternity -everyone fears the “other”, the “foreigner” – the black or the North African.”
Stop and frisk, as well as the racial targeting that seems to always go along with it, isn’t isolated to the United States as Theo’s experience shows. In the United Kingdom the practice is widespread, although there have been efforts to reform it In Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, the practice of carding, which may be worse in some ways, was finally banned for those not under investigation at the beginning of this year, although critics have complained the new rules don’t go far enough.
As another Frenchman born of immigrant parents living in the Alma neighborhood outside of the northern city Roubaiz told France24 shortly after the current unrest began, “The same story gets repeated over and over in low-income neighborhoods across France. Even if you aren’t doing anything, just hanging out in front of your house, you risk being hit and humiliated by the police.”
Rather than fading, with the back drop of upcoming two stage presidential elections the situation in the country, which is still under a state of emergency ushered in after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November of 2015, has remained volatile.
On Saturday, February 25th in Nantes, a city in the west of the country, seven police officers were injured by rocks and molotov cocktails thrown at buses during a large protest against National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, whose unofficial campaign slogan is the highly original “Make France Great Again”.
An unpredictable election
The five major candidates in the election will be reduced to the two with the highest count after a first round of voting. These candidates will then have a runoff to determine the country’s president. Coming in the wake of high profile terrorist attacks, worries about refugees and unrest in the banlieues, it isn’t surprising that right wing forces are on the rise in France.
Early on in the campaign, it appeared that one of the two candidates in the runoff would be Francois Fillon of the Republican Party, who has pushed his party further to the right and seemed likely to face off against the extreme nationalist Le Pen, still riding the anti-EU wave sparked by the UK’s Brexit vote.
However, in an already scandal filled election, the most serious accusations are those against the Republican candidate. The dip in Fillon’s popularity is the result of an ongoing nepotism inquiry involving political work given to his wife and two children that they are accused of not actually doing.
Fillon’s problems have opened up the field to Emmanuel Macron, who seems to have a similar appeal to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, a status quo corporatist who manages to make the same old policies sound fresh with a measure of charisma and an engaging smile. He was in the current government of Socialist Francois Hollande as economy minister, but the 39 year old former investment banker quickly left the post to form his own pro-business political party ‘En Marche’ (‘Forward’).
While the polling shows Ms. Le Pen losing to either Macron or Fillon in potential run-offs by wide margins, the past year has taught us that polls and especially pundits’ predictions should be treated with skepticism. Currently, the two candidates are neck and neck in the race to see who faces off against Le Pen, the only candidate who has had consistent numbers in the polling.
One thing that seems likely is that the French left, represented by Socialist Benoit Hamon (who has drawn comparisons to Bernie Sanders) and the Left Party’s, Jean-Luc Melenchon will not be in the contest. Talks towards the end of uniting under one candidate failed and it doesn’t appear at this time as if either man has a chance of making it to the second round of voting.
Some of Hamon’s troubles have been internal as several important party members have said they may defect to Macron, decrying the Socialist candidate as too left-wing, a strange accusation considering the name of their party.
Oddly, Le Pen and her National Front Party represent a peculiarly French strain of far right populism in that she promises to protect the French welfare state while her two main opponents are bent on cutting it in various ways. This mirrors some of the campaign rhetoric of the current American president who promised massive infrastructure spending to the working class people who make up a large part of his base while placating the traditional right with promises of lower taxes, deregulation and increased military spending.
The ace up Le Pen’s sleeve is her consistent critique of the European Union and her promises of a “Frexit”. Predictably, she has continued to promote the anti-refugee and anti-Islam sentiment that seems to be growing throughout the West with each passing day
Some victims are more equal than others
The populist far-right in Europe, for which the Le Pen family have long been standard bearers, now describe refugee flows from Syria and other war torn countries as ‘colonization’. Yet another attack on both history and the meaning of language for cynical, political reasons.
Acting as if France, or any other colonial power, has been innocently minding its own business while thousands of Muslims make plans to impose a caliphate and Sharia law on them ignores even recent history in Mali and Libya. This is not to excuse the brutal attacks on civilians in the West but goes further toward explaining some of the motivation behind them than blaming a religion practiced by almost a quarter of the world’s population with very few problems until relatively recent times.
Writing in a different context about the victims of U.S. wars, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald made this point about the way we look at the victims of violence undertaken in our names in other countries recently, “Because they’re never heard from, because we never learn their names, because we never experience their family’s suffering, all of their human attributes are stripped from them and their deaths are thus meaningless because they’re barely human.”
On top of this, in the case of France, the country has shown an unwillingness to accept its own history of racism both at home and abroad, with Macron recently widely attacked for criticizing his country’s terrible colonial legacy in Algeria from 1830 to 1962.
Rather than trying to heal the wounds of the past it seems that most Western leaders are bent on creating new ones. Whoever wins the current French election is likely to continue this trend in former colonies and further alienate their own restless minorities in the banlieues..
* For what may be the most chillingly relevant look at colonialism in Algeria, the birth of modern terrorism in the Greater Middle East and the futility of trying to fight it using military means, I highly recommend the 1966 French language film, “The Battle of Algiers”, which was banned in the country upon its release. You can view the trailer here.