On the Paris metro I noticed a woman sitting opposite me wearing a t-shirt immortalising the name of Adama Traoré, a 24 year old black man who died in police custody in July 2016. The words under his name read sans justice, vous n’aurez jamais la paix (‘without justice, you will never have peace’). The person wearing the t-shirt was Nadya. As her t-shirt suggested, she too was going to the march commemorating the death of Lamine Dieng — another young black man who died in police custody in 2007.
In France the victims of police violence are many. At the commemoration of Dieng’s death — which took place at the site of his arrest in Paris’s 20th arrondissement — the names of some of these victims were written on a bouquet of white balloons: Vilhelm Covaci, Lamine Dieng, Baba Traoré, Geoffrey Tidjani, Wissam El-Yamni, Abdoulaye Camara, Adama Traoré, Théo Luhaka, all floated up into a mercilessly hot sky.
Nadya, who took me under her wing, explained the stories behind the names — the kind of evidence not admitted in the numerous fruitless cases brought against the police officers concerned (including those acquitted of the manslaughter of Lamine Dieng last month). She herself was born and grew up in the suburb of Torcy, the daughter of Moroccan parents. Although she says she has experienced little racism, she still uses her ‘French’ middle name, Line, on her CV. Her brother, whose adolescence was tainted by the heavy stereotyping that young Arab men are subjected to in France, moved to Norway seven years ago and doesn’t plan to come back. Nadya is kept in France by her political engagements — she has been going to demonstrations, meetings and memorials for ten years, since the age of 16. If it wasn’t for these commitments she would be living in Morocco, where she goes regularly and feels more at ease.
The current cycle of antiracist campaigning in France began in 2005 with the deaths of two teenage boys — Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15 — who were electrocuted whilst hiding in an electricity substation to avoid a routine police check, sparking uprisings in cities across the country that lasted weeks and cemented an image of French suburbs abroad. 12 years later, the most recent high profile victim of state racism is the 22 year old youth worker, Théo Luhaka, who was brutally assaulted by police officers in January, one of them raping him with a police baton. Once again, the backdrop for this violence was a routine police check (the nature and frequency of which constitute a violence in-and-of themselves) taking place on Luhaka’s estate in Aulnay-sous-Bois. Again, riots erupted in response.
What is left out of this familiar media account — as in the recent UK reporting on the deaths of Edson Da Costa and Rashan Charles — is the antiracist organising that has grown out of the daily reality of French suburbs. In March of this year, families of victims of police violence organised a 25,000-strong March for Justice and Dignity. This followed on from the March for Dignity Against Racism in 2015, which was organised and led by a collective of 60 women of colour to protest the racism exacted upon French suburbs.
“This movement is not new,” explains Fania Noël, one of the organisers of the 2015 march and a key figure in the recent wave of antiracist militancy. “Local groups have been organising in the suburbs since the 1980s — there were the same issues then as now: police violence, Islamophobia, the legacy of colonialism, etc. The main difference is that now people are taking more notice.”
With Black Lives Matter (BLM) gaining coverage on the other side of the Atlantic, the French press has slowly begun to pay more attention to what is happening in the suburbs a few miles from their offices. Yet the coverage remains patchy at best, and at worst defamatory. The reception of the French translation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me (an account of racism in the US written as a letter to the author’s teenage son in homage to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time) is revealing in this regard. Widely acclaimed by French media, interviews with Coates focused exclusively on racism in the US, preferring to exoticise the issues rather than explore the resonances with contemporary France.
Worse, the so-called ‘colour-blind’ republicanism staunchly adhered to by the French media establishment has led them to smear much of the recent organising as ‘anti-white’. This was the phrase used by Anne Hilgado, the Socialist party mayor of Paris, in a tweet denouncing an afro-feminist festival that took place in the capital this summer, at which some of the rooms were reserved for self-identifying women of colour.
“In France, race is the elephant in the room,” explains Nacira Guénif-Souilamas, professor of sociology and anthropology at the Université Paris-VIII and co-organiser of the 2015 March for Dignity Against Racism, “and republicanism is the reason race is not addressed.” In trying to write antiracism into the history and spirit of la République, much of the French left has ended up refusing to recognise the specificities of racial discrimination and the concomitant need for particular struggles led by those directly affected.
This co-option of antiracism found root in the 1980s. In 1983, the March for Equality and Against Racism was led by young Arab men from the suburbs of Lyon, where they lived, to Paris. It was the first time that antiracism made national news, dubbed the Marche des beurs (slang for ‘Arabs’) by the media. The following year, SOS Racisme was set up by the then governing Socialist party and positioned as the standard-bearer of official republican antiracism. Many of the march’s organisers were sidelined in favour of people close to the socialists — Harlem Désir, president of SOS Racisme from 1984 to 1992 went on to hold several senior roles in the Socialist party, most recently as minister of European affairs up until May of this year. Laurence Rossignol, another of the organisation’s founders, went on to become the minister of families, children and women’s rights as part of François Hollande’s government (infamously comparing wearing the veil to “negroes who accepted slavery” [sic]).
The organisation’s official slogan, touche pas à mon pote (‘hands off my mate’), is illustrative of the organisation’s attempt to defang the then nascent antiracist movement, promoting universal fraternité at the expense of tackling institutional racism. “What we are seeing today is the overturning of a 30 year antiracist establishment” explains Guénif-Souilamas. “The grassroots groups that have been opposing racism and police violence in the suburbs for decades are now making their voices heard at the national level again.” Rather than bolstering official, ‘colour-blind’ republicanism, these groups are confronting state racism and the legacies of colonialism head-on, marking a significant shift.
This isn’t the only thing that is novel about the movement. Online and offline, it is hard to miss the distinctly transnational sensibilities of this new generation of anti-racist campaigners. Many of the campaigners follow and retweet the latest news coming from BLM in the US, as well as physically crossing the Atlantic to attend meetings and conferences. This transnationalism is made more concrete still by the wide footprint of the French empire. Following the trajectory described in Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic (although stretching it through the Strait of Gibraltar to encompass the Mediterranean), many amongst this new generation of activists have strong ties to former French colonies — Haiti, Algeria, Mali, Senegal, Morocco, amongst others — as well as Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana, which continue to exist as French overseas departments.
Although this transnationalism is not new (indeed, it was a strong feature of 20th century anti-colonial movements) its current articulation is novel, particularly when compared with the 1980s antiracism in France, which marked a low-ebb for such inter-continental links. Unsurprisingly, the internet has made things easier in this respect, multiplying and speeding up connections. Further, the identification with BLM in the US marks a shift away from confronting racism in the terms set by the boundaries of the French empire. Independence is no longer the principal question; the aim is rather to ‘decolonise’ the metropole itself, confronting allegedly ‘colour-blind’ republicanism to overturn entrenched inequalities — the starkest manifestations of which are the deaths of young black men at the hands the police.
Foremost among this new generation is Assa Traoré, sister of the late Adama (whose name was printed on Nadya’s t-shirt). She was not an activist before the death of her brother. At the commemoration of Lamine Deing she gave a speech to start the march, radiating the understated force of a true leader. She has no activist axe to grind, no bitterness: just a powerful sense of justice and a desire for real peace. As she and the movement around her insist, the latter is contingent on the former being restored.