On March 17th, following the significant rise of COVID-19 in France, president Emmanuel Macron announced a “confinement’’ (lockdown) which lasted until May 11th and during which a citizen would receive a €135 ($158) fine for not filling out an “attestation’’ explaining the reason for leaving their house. On March 23rd, the government declared a state of emergency which lasted until July 10th in order to better face the pandemic and protect the French people. But, for those living in “difficult neighborhoods,’’ this meant being a target of increased racism, Islamophobia, sexism or being tortured at the hands of the police officers who made 19 million controls that translated to unnecessary violence according to Amnesty International.

The police’s playground during the pandemic

The outskirts of Paris show a very different reality from the capital’s touristic and rich areas from even before the COVID-19 pandemic: segregation, isolation, and poverty. I talked to the decolonial Facebook page “Décolonial News’’ which explained that Muslim communities were already living in extremely precarious conditions: “Many of them work by the task, in the interim, as extras, public market sellers, delivery men, seasonal workers, but also as unreported employees to try to escape from their precarious living conditions.” I also talked to Fik’s Niavo, artist and activist who grew up in the southern suburb of Les Ulis, who added that these essential workers were not properly protected since “they only received masks and gloves one month after the confinement started.’’

Décolonial News also explained that the media plays an important role in maintaining these differences by portraying non-white people in France like “second-class citizens, savages and totally uncivilized.’’ During the confinement, it was even more amplified with, for example, articles from Le Parisien where “Ahmed who doesn’t respect the confinement is undisciplined but Lucie just couldn’t resist the ‘call of the sun.’’’ In parallel to this narrative, these suburban communities faced even more backlash from the police, making the confinement unsafe for them. 

This was the case of Sofiane, a 21-year old Amazon delivery man whose job was maintained, in Les Ulis. On his way to work, he faced the police and, having forgotten his “attestation,’’ he ran away; 6 police officers caught him and beat him up in a corner while covering his mouth. He then received 4 days of “total inability to work’’ because of his physical wounds. At night, he was stopped again when his mother took him to the hospital; she received a fine for not having fully completed the “attestation.’’ He was just going to work, but the police considered him a threat. 

In the northern suburb of Aubervilliers, the 19-year old Ramatoulaye B. faced a similar experience while grocery shopping. On her way to the supermarket, a police officer affirmed that her handwritten “attestation” was totally fine, but on her way back the 9 police officers she ran into disagreed. They threw her on the floor, beat her up in the street and then in their truck while going to the police station. She also received 5 days of “total inability to work’’ because of her physical wounds. She was just getting food for her newborn child, but the police also considered her a threat. 

These are not isolated cases. In Torcy, the police ventral tackled a man while telling the neighbors to “go back to their country.’’ In Grigny, the police ran over a man with a motorcycle. In Strasbourg, the police beat a man up during the night. But according to Fik’s Niavo, this is not an exception: “the police were always part of our environment and our landscape. (…) [These neighborhoods] have very often been used as labs and experimentation fields for State violence.’’ Décolonial News even added that such violence was predictable since “during colonization and after the arrival in France of these same immigrant populations, there was always a different treatment from the media-political class and thus, from the police. In France, there are on average 15 deaths every year following an encounter with the police, and all these deaths are people issued of the history of immigration and colonization.’’ In fact, COVID-19 only exacerbated the violence these communities have been facing ever since they migrated to France: but how did the country of freedom-equality-brotherhood let this brutality happen?

A past still haunting the present 

During the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century “social housing,’’ consisting of numerous small apartments in tall buildings, started spreading around cities like Paris, Bordeaux, and Marseille to enable workers from rural areas to work in urban ones, leading to a severe contrast with the rich city centers. In the 1950s and 1960s, decolonization in North Africa increased the need for social housing due to mass migration of people working as “main d’oeuvre’’ (workforce). Today, in 2020, these temporary housing and their demographics have not changed much, mainly due to a lack of reforms from the government. As Fik’s Niavo explains in his documentary “Clasher l’ennui,’’ these isolated neighborhoods were built in a way that would not require its inhabitants to leave as everything would be available (supermarkets, shops, etc) with no direct trains departing/leaving, which created a lack of opportunities for the youth. Yet, he defines Les Ulis as a city of “love’’ because “many accomplished their dreams despite the difficulties, and this left a real heritage for the next generations.’’

According to Ourida Mostefai, Professor of Comparative Literature and French Studies at Brown University, the legacy of colonization in France created a non-resolved conflict that continues to haunt France today. In her course “Images and Representation of the Algerian War’’ Professor Mostefai always repeats that “many things that you see in France today can be explained by looking back at the French-Algerian War.’’ The ‘loss’ of Algeria was a ‘déchirure’ (a tear) which created feelings of nostalgia and frustration for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s right-wing party and its partisans who still refuse to deal with “all these Algerians who come live here.’’ For them, there should not be a place for North and Sub-Saharan Africans in France: they chased France away and refused the ‘civilization’ it offered them so they can’t just come here now. As France does not effectively recognize its past, it gave an opportunity for these right-wing politicians to rewrite the history of colonization and immigration into a racist dominant narrative. Those who did not know the real history now believed that the inhabitants of these ‘difficult neighborhoods’ just came to France to ‘profit off the system’…but this narrative will not tell them that this generation’s grandparents or great grandparents fought against the Nazis with the French military, rebuilt a destroyed France after the Second World War, and participated in its industrialization. 

A large part of the society, on the contrary, feels ashamed while attempting to face France’s colonial past. As Professor Mostefai explained, this relates to the motto Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité: “how to comprehend and live with the fact that the secular Republic allowed colonization to happen?” These principles inspired the first successful slave rebellion in Haiti which Napoleon tried to fight against after reinstituting slavery, and to which France imposed ‘reparations’ that Haiti still has not recovered from but they now have “been shaped by past ‘exception policies’ which totally violated the original Republican principles.” This makes it impossible, today, to just claim that everyone is equal under the same Republic regardless of religion, race, gender. Without a recognition of its past, France cannot recognize the discriminations it created: this allows a form of colonization to continue.

Perhaps, the most striking instance of this continuation happened on April 25th in the northern suburb of L’île-Saint-Denis, when a young man threw himself into the Seine while the police were chasing him. After ‘rescuing’ him, they tortured him inside their truck while laughing and using the very same racist slurs used by the French military during the French-Algerian war. This is even more disturbing knowing the massacre of October 17th, 1961, when the French police beat and drowned hundreds of Algerians protesting for Algeria’s independence…59 years later, the same dynamic is present around the Seine.

Understanding French colonial history is then crucial to understand the rise of police brutality in these “quartiers populaires’’ during the confinement. Fik’s Niavo explains that “the suburbs are often defined as ‘lost territory of the Republic.’ […] They are then places that need to be reconquered and ‘civilized’ in order to bring order…It is obvious that when we consider some citizens as not having the ‘Republic’s DNA’, we need to either chase them away or force them to comply…doesn’t it remind you of something?’’   

In Calvados, in the Northwest of France, the Departmental Director of Public Security requested all police departments of the region not to intervene in the Muslim neighborhoods observing Ramadan, except in case of emergency, and during the entirety of the celebration. The police were so upset about being denied the right to access all neighborhoods that the Director General of the National Police immediately requested an explanation to making such an incomprehensible decision, repeating that they needed to protect France in its entirety. This reinforces the narrative that not surveilling Muslim neighborhoods would significantly impact the country’s safety. But, for Muslim, non-white, and immigrant communities, feeling protected and safe means the absence of police intervention. This is a shared feeling in the United States, as seen through #Defundthepolice; very similarly to France, COVID-19 also exacerbated the inequalities and violence communities of color have been facing in the U.S. for centuries.

Police brutality: an international system?

Following the murder of George Floyd in May, the Black Lives Matter movement gave a ‘context’ to similar cases abroad. In France, for example, George Floyd’s murder was used to make a stronger case for Adama Traoré, who was also murdered at the hands of a police officer. As both Fik’s Niavo and Professor Mostefai mentioned, seeing what is happening in the U.S. can help understand better the situation in France and can lead to more people denouncing cases of police brutality. Professor Mostefai compared this parallelism to Frantz Fanon’s experience, who understood the French colonial system in Algeria after analyzing the system of slavery in the Americas, which led him to be an important actor and architect of the Algerian revolution.

According to Décolonial News, both systems are simply a continuation of their long colonial history: “The United States was built on the genocide of the native indigenous populations and the Slave Trade while France colonized all 4 corners of the world and participated in that same Slave Trade. (…) Police brutality against non-white populations is obviously the continuation of this colonial and slave history since the methods used against Arabs and Blacks by the State representatives or institutions are the residue of that history.’’ Fik’s Niavo also adds that ‘colorblindness’ is an important factor since this narrative “cancels any debate or interesting conversation since it never touches the roots of the problem but, rather, the feeling of the person non-discriminated against.’’ They both explain that capitalism is another factor; for Fik’s Niavo, music was a way to formulate demands after facing these injustices but then “mass consumption, hypersexualization, and other forms of capitalism came to redefine what we had embraced like a real way to escape.’’ For Décolonial News, both systems maintain their world leadership and privileges through capitalism and they “arm and form themselves with another colonial power, the Israeli occupying force which tests its methods and weapons […] as a ‘quality label’ on Palestinian civilians.’’ Both systems then have a slightly different history but are built on the same colonial ideas of white supremacy and capitalism. COVID-19 did not create this violence, it simply exposed it.

The cases of police brutality in both the United States and France during the pandemic are not a coincidence; despite some differences, both systems work and are meant to work very similarly. It is not a coincidence that in both countries, BIPOC, Muslim, and low income communities have been particularly affected by the police. It is not a coincidence that the police let armed white people protest against COVID-19 safety regulations and the Parisian bourgeoisie crowd parks and rush to their secondary provincial homes, while they arrested and beat up non-white ‘essential workers.’ In both countries, the police are here to maintain the white supremacist and capitalist systems: they are doing exactly what they were always meant to do, pandemic or not.

All translations from French have been made by the author herself. She can be reached at mathilde_barland@brown.edu for further questions.