George Floyd's Death Left Scars In France, Too

One year on from the protests against racism and police violence that swept European cities such as Paris and London after George Floyd’s death, it’s fair to say the initial impact was short-lived. Protesters confronted politicians, toppled statues and sparked changes — including a pledge to stop police using choke holds in France, where lethal force is otherwise much rarer than it is in the U.S. — but no real soul-searching followed.

President Emmanuel Macron urged the country to rally behind patriotic, constitutionally color-blind values and Covid-19 and terrorism took priority. Old wounds were left to simmer, from the use of heavy-handed police tactics during the 2018 Gilets Jaunes protests to pent-up resentment in the country’s working-class banlieues captured in movies like “La Haine.”

Real change has yet to come. Michel Zecler, a Black music producer and himself a victim of violence, wants to make sure it does.

Zecler became a national symbol in November when he was violently beaten and arrested by police on the steps of his Paris music studio. His offense: walking outside during lockdown without a face-covering. He says he was also racially abused during the incident, which is still being investigated. 

When video news service Loopsider posted photos of his battered face and the security-camera footage that captured every truncheon blow, it sparked a national outcry. Macron said he felt shock and shame; footballer Kylian Mbappe said the violence was unforgivable.

What made the case such a flashpoint is that the images are so clear, and the impunity so flagrant. Zecler was initially accused by the police of resisting arrest, but the video shows otherwise and the police recanted. 

“Don’t tell me there’s no police racism after what I went through,” Zecler tells me at his studio. He’s recovering after months of operations and physical therapy, but there’s still sign of damage to the studio as well as to Zecler’s trust in authority. 

Aside from justice in his own case, what Zecler really wants is to address the kind of deep social distrust that Macron has repeatedly promised to repair. He’s launching a foundation to bring together police and the young Black or Arab men they frequently face off against, who are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than others, according to a 2017 study. It might encourage empathy and responsibility where none exists.

The centralized nature of French police, whose power flows from Paris, aggravates a disconnect between citizens and those paid to protect them, says Noam Anouar, an ex-cop of North African origin who spent years tracking radical Islamists. Reducing bureaucracy and allowing for a more decentralized, community-policing model would make a difference.

Citizen journalism projects and complaints trackers, which Macron himself has proposed, might also bring more transparency from the bottom-up. Any debate about policing in France is usually dominated by politicians who promise ever-more security, police trade unions who want their members protected and ad-hoc advocacy groups that fail to gain traction.

Zecler’s case may even lead to reform at a police force that likes to police itself. It could benefit from more transparency and accountability, especially when police break the rules. 

France's National Police General Inspectorate, the internal oversight body, has long appeared toothless and opaque, with no detailed breakdown of conviction rates when legal proceedings are launched. Data would allow for a more forensic examination of how serious racial discrimination and violence are, as well as their consequences. A 2016 report found that in 59 cases of lethal force used over a six-year period, only two had led to a lawsuit. 

Done right, these things can make a difference, but it will take political courage and commitment at every level.

Macron is facing an uphill battle for re-election against far-right nemesis Marine Le Pen. And French voter sentiment is becoming more conservative, just as more responsibility has been thrust on the police, from fighting terrorism and dispersing protesters to enforcing Covid lockdowns. Trust in the police has actually risen in the past six months, according to pollster Ifop, after shocking incidents of violence against the police that have themselves led to street protests.

Still, there’s hope that cases like Zecler’s will lead to transparency, accountability and change — however incremental. Floyd’s legacy can have a lasting impact in Europe yet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the European Union and France. He worked previously at Reuters and Forbes.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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