PARIS — Thousands gathered Saturday in Paris and in other major French cities to protest racism and police brutality, in what may be one of the largest anti-racism movement in decades in the country.
The crowd held signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “The State won’t silence police brutality” and chanted “No justice, no peace” and “Justice for Adama,” referring to Adama Traoré, a French black man whose death in police custody has been likened to the one of George Floyd in the United States.
France, which champions liberté, égalité and fraternité and legally ignores the concept of race, is not used to such record-number anti-racist protests.
But the movement has gained traction since the death of George Floyd and renewed protests over the Traoré case. Traoré died while under arrest in 2016, with his family saying law enforcement officers’ rough handling caused his death. A preliminary investigation pointed to pre-existing medical conditions. The case was reopened last year.
“George Floyd’s death echoes my little brother’s death,” said Assa Traoré, his sister and anti-racism activist, at the protest. “What’s happening in the United States, it’s exactly the same thing in France,” she added.
Racial minorities and anti-racist groups have long denounced racial profiling by law enforcement, amid a wider outcry over alleged police brutality, including during the Yellow Jacket movement. The French police has categorically denied any structural racism within its ranks, with the government holding a similar line.
But protesters, predominantly young, draw a parallel with the U.S.’s Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think the situation is comparable in the modus operandi [of the police], and also because we’re talking about police violence against people of color, with the victim perceived as the aggressor,” said Soraya Ntumba, a 20-year-old literature student at La Sorbonne, at the march. “These are phenomena that we have seen [in France] for a long time with the Zyed and Bouna case [two boys whose death in 2005 led to weeks of riots in Paris’ suburbs] … the Adama case. It’s strange to see in France that the media can’t see police violence whereas in the U.S. it’s everywhere.”
The movement extends far beyond capital, with rallies organized Saturday in Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier and other cities across the country.
The American movement has partly spilled over into France thanks to social networks, according to Ntumba: “I came to learn about K-Pop on Tumblr and ended up getting interested in racial violence by following Americans,” she said with a laugh.
The protest, launched in the northeastern part of the city on Place de la République, was predominantly peaceful, with many wearing masks to abide by the coronavirus-related health guidelines, and a big police presence on the sidelines.
But tensions arose as protesters were not allowed to march toward the Opéra neighborhood as they intended to. Mid-afternoon, the first tear gas grenades were launched by the police, with protestors blocked on every street surrounding the square.
The gathering in the Place de la République also gave a brief glimpse of the tensions among French youth, as an extreme right-wing group tried to install a banner on a building denouncing anti-white racism, to the booing of the crowd. Applause followed as the building’s inhabitants grabbed knives and threw pieces of the banner at the crowd, while anti-fascist groups dressed in black marched toward the building.
No official estimate of the number of protesters was available at the time of publication from either the organizers or the authorities.