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In France, George Floyd's death fueled a protest movement against police treatment

Just as it had in the U.S., Floyd’s killing led to large marches in cities across France.
Image: Street art paying tribute to George Floyd and Adama Traore a black man who died in police custody in 2016, on a wall in a street of Stains, in the outskirts of Paris
Street art paying tribute to George Floyd and Adama Traore, a Black man who died in police custody in 2016, on the outskirts of Paris.Francois Guillot file / AFP via Getty Images

The scene was shockingly familiar. A white police officer placed his knee on the neck of a black man pinned to the ground.

This arrest took place not on the streets of a city in the United States but in Paris, on May 28 — just three days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

And as footage of the French arrest spread on social media, it highlighted accusations of brutal treatment by police of people of African and Arab descent in France.

The events in Minnesota added fuel to a long-standing movement calling for an end to police brutality against minorities in France, based on historic and contemporary allegations of unequal treatment.

Just as it had in the U.S., Floyd’s death led to large marches in cities across France, with one June 2 in Paris drawing an estimated 20,000 protesters, according to police figures.

Image: Police officers wearing protective masks patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower as France reinforces mask-wearing as part of efforts to curb a resurgence of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) across the country, in Paris
Police officers wearing protective masks patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in August.Charles Platiau / Reuters file

“I didn’t have my ID with me, so they started being aggressive and calling me names. Things escalated quickly, I was kicked down by a policeman and fell abruptly,” Amara Touré, the man who was arrested and on whose neck the Paris police officer placed his knee, told NBC News.

“All I remember is having this cop with his knee on my neck. I couldn’t breathe or move but he didn’t care. I feel really lucky to be alive,” he said.

Touré said he was standing with friends when the police stopped them for an identity check, a legal procedure when someone is suspected of a crime. He resisted the arrest because he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, he said. Then, police handcuffed him and held him for four hours in custody before he was released without charge, he said.

In June, Danielle Simonnet, a councilor for Paris’ 20th arrondissement, where Touré’s arrest took place, wrote to the Paris police demanding an investigation and for “this method of arrest” to be banned.

France’s National Police didn’t respond to phone calls and emails for comment on the incident.

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David Le Bars, general secretary of the SCPN, the union for commissioners of France’s national police force, told franceinfo in June that the “nauseating accusation” that all police are racist was an “insult” to the profession and to France as a whole.

Touré’s account mirrors that of others published in a report released in June by Human Rights Watch on brutality during police stops. The report from the human rights organization cited 2016 research showing Black and Arab youths were far more likely than white people to face identity checks, even when there is no sign or evidence of wrongdoing.

“These ‘identity checks,’ as they are known in France, often involve invasive searches of bags and cellphones, as well as humiliating body pat-downs, even of children as young as 10,” read the report, which is based on testimony and research in Paris and other French cities, including Lille, Strasbourg and Grenoble, in 2019 and 2020.

France has for years grappled with tumultuous race relations. France’s banlieues — or suburbs — are frequently flashpoints of anger over social and economic inequality and allegations of heavy-handed policing.

These incidents have led to calls for change from campaigners who say that police are quick to use violence, especially against people of color or those from immigrant backgrounds.

On June 2, Paris Police Chief Didier Lallement wrote a letter of support to the 27,500 law enforcement officers in the capital to say the force "is neither violent, nor racist. It acts within the framework of the right to liberty for all."

Image: Clashes take place between demonstrators and the police during the demonstration against racism and police violence organised by the collective ''Truth for Adama''
Clashes take place between demonstrators and the police during a demonstration organised by ''Truth for Adama'' on in June in Paris, France.Jerome Gilles / NurPhoto via Getty Images

People have protested in France as part of the Justice for Adama movement since 2016 when Adama Traoré, a young Black man, died in police custody.

His sister, Assa Traoré, told NBC News her brother is the symbol of the fight against police brutality.

An initial autopsy found Traoré died from heart failure. But after his family disputed the findings, they commissioned a second autopsy that found that he died of asphyxiation, supporting the family’s allegation that he died as a result of police treatment.

Subsequent autopsy reports ordered by the police and the Traoré family have continued to make opposing conclusions. In May this year, three doctors said Traoré died of a "cardiogenic oedema" and not from asphyxia. A high level of cannabis in his system also contributed, they said.

But just four days later, the Traoré family released a report they commissioned from a cardiologist, who said the death was caused by asphyxia due to police action.

Assa Traoré still hopes the case will be re-investigated by the authorities.

“I hope that justice will be served and my brother’s case will help all victims of police brutality. We will not give up,” she said.

Another incident that became a rallying cause for protesters was when a Black woman who was seven months pregnant was tackled to the ground by three transport police officers at a Paris train station in June.

Diatou Magassa, 23, shared her story on Facebook and called the actions of the SNCF, the railway authority in France, disproportionate. She says that footage that was shared widely on social media shows SNCF transport police officers pushing her away as she was trying to board a train.

She also says she was fined by officers for not wearing a mask on public transport.

“I kept asking him to stop pushing me as I am pregnant and not to grab my arm” she said.

Massaga admitted she bit the policeman who was twisting her arm in an attempt to make him release her, saying she was in a lot of pain and worried about her baby.

The SNCF said the video was taken out of context, leading to misleading interpretations. The video was “only showing the end of the intervention of police agents but no contextualization or explanation is brought” a spokesperson said.

The agency said the woman spat at the officers and tried boarding the train without a ticket before they stepped in. The SNFC has opened an internal investigation into the incident.

In response to a request for comment, the Prefecture de Police, a national body that represents police forces across France, declined to communicate on this and other cases.

Image: Paris riot police fire tear gas to disperse a largely peaceful but unauthorized protest supporting the movement Black Lives Matter protest against brutality and racism near Place de la Republique.
Paris riot police fire tear gas to disperse a largely peaceful but unauthorized protest supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, in June. Abdulmonam Eassa / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

By law the French government cannot collect data on the race or religion of its residents, nor can government organizations ask for this information. As a result, police have no statistics on the background or race of the people they arrest, making it hard to quantify the extent of any problem.

However, in a sign that the government was attuned to the complaints of racial mistreatment, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced a ban on chokeholds in police training in June.

According to one analyst, the refusal of the government and the police to recognize discrimination has damaged their credibility.

“We have all seen videos, reports, we have also heard very documented testimonies. To say that there is no police violence is unrealistic,” Pascal Boniface, director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, said in an interview in June.

“It is simply an affront to reality and to the perception of reality by the majority of people. It is not a way to build trust between the population, especially those who protest, and politicians,” he said.