Protests have spread from the suburbs into the city of Paris over the alleged police rape of a young black man. Théo, 22-years-old, says he was beaten, a police baton was forced into his anus, and he was sprayed with teargas as officers shouted insults and racial epithets at him. Théo required major emergency surgery as a result.
France’s national police claimed the sexual assault was an accident, and therefore not rape because it was supposedly unintentional. Despite this assertion, one officer was charged with aggravated rape and three others have been charged with aggravated assault.
Théo’s case highlights the ongoing problem of police brutality and racial profiling in France. Over the summer Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man, died in police custody, setting off a similar wave of protests and violent clashes with police. Advocates are frustrated with the lack of accountability, as few officers are ever convicted.
Théo’s arrest began with an identification check, which have become a central part of the discussion over racial profiling in France. Black and Arab young men are 20 times more likely to be stopped for ID checks, according to a study by France’s independent ombudsman for civil and human rights. Despite condemnation from the highest national court for racially-targeted identity checks, the government dropped a measure to require police to issue receipts for these checks, which would identify repeated abuses and promote accountability.
The extended state of emergency in France is exacerbating the problem of racial profiling because it gives police broader powers, provides less effective judicial oversight, and opens the door for discriminatory application of police tactics. The extended state of emergency ultimately undermines long-term security, stability, and human rights.
The movement in France to challenge institutional racism among law enforcement and structural racism within the whole of society mirrors the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, which has gone global with protests in the United Kingdom and Germany. Addressing institutional racism as a shared challenge can be helpful for all these countries, just as we have suggested for the United States and Germany.
In both the United States and France, there is a tendency to describe the issue as a lack of trust between police and minority communities. Yet that doesn’t fully capture the scope of the problem. The root of the problem is racism: both overt and subconscious, individual, institutional, and structural. Addressing this requires going beyond re-building trust (which is needed, but won’t happen until the root of the problem is addressed).
To address longstanding and deeply ingrained racism, law enforcement agencies must openly and honestly confront their own prejudices, whether individually held or embedded in policies and practices of the institution. They must train officers on discrimination and measures to combat it. Law enforcement agencies in the United States and France should diversify their police forces to better represent the communities that they serve. Furthermore, the U.S. and French governments should create independent, external accountability mechanisms. Just as France’s police failed to find wrongdoing in Theo’s case, we know in the United States police are not well-suited to investigate themselves.