Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Near Paris, the suspicious death in police custody of Adama Traore spawns a French Black Lives Matter movement.
To American readers, the fate of Adama Traore may sound depressingly familiar. Traore, a 24-year-old black construction worker living in a suburban housing project, was arrested by police on July 19, and died in custody soon after. Police blamed a heart attack due to long-term illness for his death, also suggesting that Traore had died under the influence of drugs or from long-term alcohol abuse.
His grieving family, however, insists otherwise. They say he has been defamed and that his death was due to a severe police beating. Local public opinion is in their favor, and both demonstrations and riots broke out in July in response to his death. A toxicological report released Wednesday confirmed the Traore family’s insistence that he had consumed no alcohol or drugs, and long-term illness was also discounted as a factor. The case continues to develop into a national debate about policing, police violence, and the treatment of racial minorities. What’s striking about the familiar contours of this story is that it is not taking place anywhere near the United States. It’s happening on the outskirts of Paris.
With the death of Adama Traore, France is going through its own equivalent of the public exposés of police violence that provoked the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. Traore’s death and its aftermath are clearly foreshadowed by American examples: There is the relatively trivial reason for his arrest—apparently for obstructing his brother’s arrest. There are details of the official account (that Traore succumbed to a long-standing illness) that fail to square with his family’s insistence on his good health. There are the attempts by police, contradicted by the results of the post-mortem published Wednesday, to suggest substance abuse as the true cause of his death.
The police version of events continues to unravel. While the results of Traore’s first autopsy mentioned an infection, a subsequent second autopsy report mentioned nothing of the sort, and instead suggested a death by asphyxia. Wednesday’s toxicological report also debunked suggestions by police to Traore’s mother that he had a heart attack partly caused by drinking on a hot day, finding no alcohol or other drugs present in his system. A further judicial enquiry is pending, but revelations so far—that Traore bled from his nose and mouth, that claims as to his cause of death have been scrubbed out and rewritten—ring so many alarm bells that public outrage over this case not likely to quiet any time soon.
There has nonetheless been an alleged reluctance by the French media to probe the case closely. Media observers have noted that the story has often been given secondary billing and left official claims largely unchallenged. This media commentator, for example, observes that French TV news spent more than 10 times longer on a story about cooking mussels with pine needles than it did covering a demonstration protesting Traore’s death. There have also been wider attempts to downplay the incident’s significance: A debate is going on as to whether Traore deserves his own Wikipedia page, with most site editors suggesting that he doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean that all French people have stayed quiet. The muted response by France’s mainstream media has meant that much of the debate over Traore has taken place on social networks. Under the hashtags #JusticePourAdama and (referencing Black Lives Matter) #BLMFrance, French social media users—and people of color in particular—have been voicing their disgust at what they see as a police coverup, and tracing its roots in long-standing French racism. Many have noted a double standard in perceptions of police violence in France and America. As this Twitter user commented: “The French press is first to denounce police blunders concerning African Americans, but when it happens here, radio silence:
La presse française est la 1ère à dénoncer les bavures à l'égard d afros-americains mais qd ça se passe ici silence radio #JusticePourAdama— Yaya (@Svfiv___) July 20, 2016
Traore’s suspicious death has helped to spark a nascent movement against racially based police brutality, and Paris witnessed its first Black Lives Matter protest on July 23. Any French version of the movement is likely to come up against not just institutional barriers but cultural ones in a country that strongly resists what it sees as the divisive nature of categorization by race.
No French census has counted citizens by race or ethnicity since 1978, partly as a response to racial categorizing and persecution under Vichy France and Nazi occupation. The French state is thus a supposedly neutral space where everyone has equal rights and opportunities afforded to them as citizens, regardless of any ethnic or religious faction they might also belong to. The same principle underpins French secularism, which bars any religious symbols from public institutions in the interest of keeping a neutral space for all.
The expressed goals of this approach are egalitarian, but the reality is that the French national tendency to reject identity politics has left it extremely difficult to challenge racism. Racist barriers to equal participation in national life remain strong, but have been glossed over or even exacerbated by the country’s reluctance to monitor them. Now that French studies that explore race as a factor are becoming somewhat more common (using the blunt instrument of national origin, which the census does record), evidence is growing of long-present systematic barriers warping the opportunities and lives of non-white French citizens.
It will be difficult to assert that black lives matter when the country’s dominant political culture is resistant to presenting black lives as a category at all. Pushing for the truth about the tragic, early death of Adama Traore should make France question its police procedures (though this still may not result in actual change), but hopefully the self-questioning won’t stop there.