France sees escalating protests after accusations of police abuse

A protester in Paris kicks back a gas canister during a demonstration against police violence Feb. 15.
A protester in Paris kicks back a gas canister during a demonstration against police violence Feb. 15.
(Etienne Laurent / EPA)

The accusation that a baton-wielding police officer in France raped a 22-year-old man during a violent arrest matched what some residents call a familiar narrative: a young man suffers serious injuries at the hands of authorities.

In Theo Luhaka’s case, the injuries he incurred in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois this month resulted in a two-week hospital stay. Luhaka blames police; the police say he hit first and any injuries were accidental.

The accusations against police also led to riots, demonstrations, looting and car-torchings in Paris, several suburbs and other cities. At least 250 people have been arrested.


Many residents and analysts say the violence stems not just from police behavior but from French officials doing a poor job of dealing with poverty, discrimination and unemployment in some of the banlieues, or suburbs, especially those north of Paris.

Outgoing French President Francois Hollande called for calm when he visited Aulnay-sous-Bois on Tuesday.

“There can be no living together if there is no respect,” he said.

There can be no living together if there is no respect.

— Francois Hollande, outgoing French president

Though official statistics are unavailable on the number of people killed or injured by law enforcement officers in France, Amnesty International has long warned of what it called “a pattern of de facto impunity” among members of the police and gendarmerie.

The Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture, a nongovernment organization, reported last year that law enforcement officers used force in 89 cases between 2005 and 2015, resulting in 26 deaths, 29 life-changing injuries and 26 serious wounds.

Another case that generated nationwide demonstrations occurred in July in the town of Beaumont-sur-Oise. Adama Traore reportedly ran when he and his brother were stopped by police. He was carrying no identification, an offense in France. Hours later, Traore was dead in police custody.

Traore’s relatives were told by police that he had been drinking and smoking cannabis and a first autopsy suggested he had a “serious infection of organs” and a possible heart disorder. A second autopsy demanded by his parents revealed Traore died of asphyxiation.

In some areas, many young people complain they suffer the daily harassment of police “identity check” operations; police say they are doing their job, dealing with drug dealers and delinquents.

There is some concern about extremists recruiting local residents. Several of those who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 and the wave of bombings and shootings in Paris in November 2015 had lived in the Paris suburbs.

Many analysts say that for more than 30 years successive French governments have failed to address the poverty and rampant unemployment that have left locals with a sense of alienation, exclusion and discrimination.

Police investigators told reporters that closed-circuit footage of Luhaka’s arrest showed him struggling and lashing out at four police officers. It is not clear at what point he may have been raped by an officer using a telescopic truncheon, but police say if it happened at all it was accidental.

The public prosecutor has placed three police officers under investigation for “deliberate violence”; the other officer is under investigation for “rape.”

Luhaka’s case has raised concerns that conditions are ripe for a repeat of the explosion of violence that started in Aulnay-sous-Bois and spread across the country in 2005 after police chased youths who hid in an electricity substation, where two were electrocuted.

Sebastian Roché, director of research at the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) and a specialist in the police and the banlieue, told Le Figaro the current outbursts have parallels with the 2005 situation.

“The essential line is the same: the supposed malicious intention of the police. The possible elements to spark things off are the same: it’s the same climate, the same basic context, the same areas, with the same populations and, above all, the same antagonism towards the police.”

Political analyst Thomas Guenole said the Interior Ministry should ban random identification checks by police.

Guenole told Libération newspaper that a January report by the Defender of Rights, an authority charged with overseeing the protection of rights and freedoms, showed that 80% of non-white men had been stopped and asked for their identification in recent years compared with 16% of the rest of the population.

“Contrary to an argument often invoked, this does not make it easier to fight crime, since there is no link between being a criminal and having your papers in order … this de facto police racism generates an immense and permanent tension between police and suburban youths who do not have the ‘right’ skin color,” he said.

“Instead of falling into the collective myth of the monstrous suburban youth who by his very nature is violent and dangerous, our society should face head on the deep problem raised by the repetition of this cycle (of violence): namely that there is something rotten in the relationship between the police and the youth of the suburbs. This calls for structural and urgent reforms,” Guenole said.

Willsher is a special correspondent.


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