In the wake of the death of George Floyd while in the hands of the US police in May, protests echoed across Europe, denouncing racial violence committed by police forces.
'TRUTH FOR ADAMA'
In France, thousands of demonstrators answered the call from the Truth for Adama Collective to demonstrate on July 18. The group is named after 24-year-old man Adama Traoré, who died four years ago in police custody. His sister Assa has become the movement’s figurehead. For four years now, she's been fighting to shed light on the death of her brother.
She called for a lawsuit of voluntary manslaughter against those who she says fatally crushed her brother on the ground:
"My brother bore the weight of three gendarmes for nine minutes. Today, we demand that the facts be reclassified as intentional homicide.
"Today, we denounce police impunity. We denounce racial violence. We denounce social violence."
Thousands of people attended the event, including several other families of victims of alleged police violence. At the event, Mahamadou Camara, whose brother Gaye died in 2018 after being shot by a police officer, said it was part of a deep-rooted problem:
"The system and the state want to ensure that those of us who are from immigrant backgrounds are pushed aside. We are second-class citizens!
"Every time a youth is killed by the French police, that person is criminalised.
"And that's not normal, because the police have no right to take young peoples' lives. The death penalty has been abolished.!"
For Assa Traoré and her supporters, Adama's fate symbolises an endemic evil:
"My brother is dead because of racist and violent behaviour by the police. It's systemic.
"We are calling for justice for Adama - for all the Adama Traorés, for things to change and for no one to have the right to take anyone’s life away."
'HATRED IN THE EYES'
The police themselves have complained and indeed demonstrated against the accusations. They maintain that racism in the force only involves a small group of people. The National Police management body, however, declined our interview requests.
David Le Bars heads the Union of French Police Commissioners. He admits there can be incidences of wrongdoing, but rejects accusations of widespread racism and impunity within the police. He does concede, though, that the institution has lost track of its core mission and needs an overhaul.
In his book published last year, 'Hatred In The Eyes', in which he describes what he calls the rise in animosity towards the police, he also discusses the decline of the police's working conditions and writes that "police officers have nothing to gain from showing their humanity”. I asked him what he meant by that.
He responded that the conditions police now faced made it impractical:
"Today we are crushed under a huge bureaucratic burden. We have tedious administrative and judicial processes. And there is no space left for the human dimension, no room for the police officers' common sense in their connection to people.
"And I believe that this dehumanisation also affects our relationship with citizens. We are over-committed in activities that are always seen as repressive.
"I believe that the population no longer sees the other side of the police, which is prevention, presence; reassuring and protecting our fellow citizens.
"And these are structural issues, linked to the organisation of the national police and more broadly to all law enforcement forces in the territory."
The dehumanisation he describes is deeply ingrained, according to some. Several reports including one from France's human rights watchdog have recently slammed abusive police methods.
A recent Human Rights Watch report was also highly critical of police identity checks, especially among minors.
ID CHECKS RULING
In 2016, lawyer Slim Ben Achour won a major legal battle; France’s highest court of justice ruled against the state in cases involving police ID checks - based on physical appearance and racial criteria.
Ben Achour says these so called 'face controls' have serious consequences:
"It has an impact on the attitude of these minors or young adults towards the institutions.
"For them the Republic is not a Republic, they can’t breathe in it, since they are constantly afraid to be ID checked - and they will be ID checked. It's part of their daily life. "
RAID AVENTURES ASSOCIATION OUTREACH
Reconciling young people with authority is the aim of the Raid Aventures Association. During summer camps or one-off days organised throughout France, police officers volunteer to explain their profession to children and teenagers from potentially sensitive neighborhoods.
Bruno Pomart, the Assocation's President and founder, a former elite police officer, believes education is the key:
"I think it's through this type of action that we will be able to recreate the social bond between young people and the authorities - and the national police in particular. "
One teenage attendee, Adam, says he has a balanced view of the issue:
"I say the police aren't racist; police officers are right and we can say the thugs are also right, because it’s illegal for police to beat up young people.
"And thugs, too, shouldn’t just go around misbehaving. So I say it's a give and take situation."
Anissa, one of the officers meeting teenagers like Adam at the same event, says such occasions can break down the barriers:
"Days like this are an opportunity for them to talk with police officers, without animosity, outside of our working context and then it opens the debate. ”
THE CASE OF LAMBA N'DIAYE
But dialogue is not always easy.
Lamba N'Diaye lived in the town of Mantes-la-Jolie outside Paris. On 3 July, he left home to collect pizza and never returned. His body was found in the Seine early the next morning.
His wife Sunay had his death confirmed when police telephoned her, telling her it was suicide. She refused to believe this and says she hasn't been given access to video surveillance footage. She's filed a complaint for an investigation to be opened.
At a commemorative march in Mantes-la-Jolie several days later, she expressed her disbelief:
"How you can want to kill yourself when you just went on an errand?. He was on his way back home to bring pizza to his children. You have to explain that to me!"
Sunay says that many questions still surround her husband's death:
"I just want to know why my husband died. It’s as simple as that, so I can start mourning with my children."
Also attending Lamba N'Diaye's protest march was Amal Bentousi. In 2012, her brother Amine was shot by police officers in Noisy-le-Sec, an eastern suburb of Paris. She fought for her brother's killer to be convicted with a five-year suspended sentence.
She agreed that Lamba's fate needs further investigation:
"The family is not here to say that (what has happened) is necessarily the responsibility of the police. We just don't know that. But they want to be sure of it.
"There is doubt. Because many young people have been dying for years, and there are many unanswered questions and inconsistencies.
"It's normal for this family to take steps to demand the truth and, if needed, for justice to be done."
We reached out to the town’s police commissioner; the ongoing status of the investigation forbids him to give us any details, but he claims that proof exists to confirm that it was suicide.
The case is now in the hands of the prosecution.