The legacy of colonialism and racism: How France’s police violence has targeted people of African descent for decades

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Police violence in France has a long and controversial history, dating back to the colonial era and the Algerian War of Independence. The recent killing of Nahel M., a 17-year-old boy of Algerian and Moroccan descent, by a police officer in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris, has sparked widespread protests and riots across the country, as well as calls for justice and accountability.

Nahel’s death is not an isolated incident, but rather the latest in a series of cases that have exposed the deep-rooted racism and brutality within France’s law enforcement agencies, especially towards Black people and immigrants of Arab origin. Here are some of the most notorious examples of police violence in France in the past decades:

  • The Paris massacre of 1961: On October 17, 1961, during the Algerian War, thousands of Algerian protesters marched peacefully in Paris against a curfew imposed on them by the French authorities. They were met with brutal repression by the police, led by Maurice Papon, a former Vichy official who had collaborated with the Nazis. The police beat, shot, drowned and tortured hundreds of protesters, throwing many of them into the Seine river. The exact number of victims is still disputed, but estimates range from 40 to 300. The massacre was covered up by the government and the media for decades, until it was finally acknowledged and condemned by President François Hollande in 2012.
  • The death of Malik Oussekine: On December 6, 1986, Malik Oussekine, a 22-year-old student of Algerian descent, was chased and beaten to death by two police officers on motorcycles in Paris. He was not involved in any protest or riot, but was simply returning home from a nightclub. His death sparked outrage and demonstrations across France, leading to the resignation of Interior Minister Charles Pasqua and the abolition of the controversial anti-riot police unit known as the “voltigeurs”.
  • The death of Adama Traoré: On July 19, 2016, Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Black man, died in police custody in Beaumont-sur-Oise, a town north of Paris. He was arrested after fleeing from an identity check, and allegedly suffocated due to the weight of three officers on his back. His family and supporters have accused the police of lying and covering up the truth about his death, and have demanded an independent investigation and justice. His case has become a symbol of the fight against police violence and racism in France, especially after the global wave of protests following the killing of George Floyd in the United States in 2020.
  • The beating of Michel Zecler: On November 21, 2020, Michel Zecler, a 41-year-old Black music producer, was brutally beaten by four police officers inside his studio in Paris. The officers also hurled racist insults at him and falsely accused him of assaulting them and possessing drugs. The incident was captured on CCTV and went viral on social media, sparking public outrage and condemnation from President Emmanuel Macron. The four officers were suspended and charged with assault and racial abuse. The case also triggered a debate over a proposed law that would restrict the filming and sharing of images of police officers on duty.

These are just some of the most prominent examples of police violence in France, but there are many more that have not received as much attention or justice. According to Amnesty International, France has failed to address the systemic problems within its police force that allow for impunity and discrimination. The human rights organization has urged France to reform its laws and practices to ensure accountability, transparency and respect for human rights by its law enforcement agents.

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