Analysis. After Nahel’s death and an initial tentative condemnation by Macron, France's largest police union, Alliance, claimed that police officers were 'at war' against 'hordes of savages.'

In Paris, a peaceful demonstration, but the French police attack

The demonstration in memory of Adama Traoré, who was killed by police on July 16, 2016, at the police station in Persan, a small town on the outskirts of Paris, ended quietly. This was not something to be taken for granted: on Thursday, the prefecture had banned it from taking place, despite the fact that for seven years, the march organized by the Comité Adama had always taken place with perfect calm.

In response to the authorities’ ban on the march in Persan and the neighboring municipality of Beaumont-sur-Oise, Comité Adama and its leader, Assa Traoré, Adama’s sister, called for a demonstration in Place de la République, in the heart of Paris.

At the latter protest, Brav-M policemen encircled a small group of young people from Comité Adama, who were calmly dispersing. They targeted one of them, surrounded him, chased the others away with batons and kicks and arrested their target. One officer put his leg on the neck of the young man, Youssouf, Assa Traoré’s brother: a gesture that recalled the images of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as what happened during Adama Traoré’s detention: “I can’t breathe,” he told the Persan gendarmes in 2016, according to their own statements at the trial. Youssouf managed to leave the 5th arrondissement police station in Paris a few hours later – on a stretcher, but fortunately alive. However, Assa is being charged with organizing an unauthorized demonstration.

It was an arbitrary and violent arrest, an unjustified deprivation of liberty, a prisoner on a stretcher, all at the end of a peaceful demonstration against police violence – it’s hard to imagine a scene more representative of the condition of the French police and their relationship to society.

Earlier, the day had been a resounding success for the movements of families of police victims who organized it, along with the Comité Adama. “Justice for Alassane,” “Truth for Claude-Jean Pierre,” “Mahamadou,” “Adama” – the words on the T-shirts each named a dead person killed by law enforcement over the years. Seen all together, worn by people – relatives, friends of the victims – they gave the impression of a constellation of grief and wrath, rendered even more tragic by the dates that accompanied the deaths.

There are some who have been waiting for justice since 2001, such as Mahamdou, who died in Paris’s 18th arrondissement in a police chase; some since 2007, when Lamine Dieng died asphyxiated in a police van in Paris; and some since 2016, when Adama Traoré was carried out dead from the Persan police station.

Standing with the families, there was also a whole section of the left that had come to show support. There were unions such as CGT, parties such as the Greens and France Insoumise, NGOs such as Attac. In front of the crowd, next to Assa Traoré, France Insoumise deputy Eric Coquerel spoke about the “merciless bottom line” of the last year of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, based on the “violation of the constitutional right to demonstrate” and the wanton use of “police violence. What does the government want, if not to provoke?”

As both parliamentarians and the victims’ families got their shoes wet in the fountain in the middle of the square, police moved in, dangerously close to the crowd. An experienced comrade from Comité Adama called on the security forces to allow them to form a procession and march on – “They’re closing us in like pigeons here,” he told us. The procession formed and started off again toward Gare de l’Est, where Assa Traoré would end with a rally from the roof of a bus shelter.

On June 30, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, through its spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani, said that France must “seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement.” The U.N. representatives called on the French authorities to “ensure the use of force by police to address violent elements in demonstrations always respects the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, non-discrimination, precaution, and accountability.”

French diplomacy rejected these words with barely-concealed irritation: a Foreign Ministry statement disputed the claims, accusing them of being “excessive” and stressing that “any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force in France is totally unfounded.” To call this attitude unconstructive is an understatement, but it precisely mirrors the attitude of the police unions, one of the main obstacles to any police reform.

After Nahel’s death and an initial tentative condemnation by Macron, France’s largest police union, Alliance, claimed that police officers were “at war” against “hordes of savages,” threatening to “go into resistance” against the government. The same union – along with other police organizations – had protested in the summer of 2020 against a decision by the Interior Minister at the time, Christophe Castaner, to ban “clé d’étranglement,” roughly meaning “chokehold,” a technique used by officers to subdue a person during arrest by cutting off their airflow. According to Mediapart, the use of this technique has claimed at least ten lives since 2007. However, following protests by the police unions, the technique was reinstated and the minister was removed, replaced by the current Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

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