Adama, Theo, Zyed and Bouna… Why didn’t these cases trigger a French-style “Black Lives Matter”?


                While the United States has been the scene of massive protests since the death of George Floyd, the tribute and call for justice for Adama Traoré on Wednesday gathered several thousand people in Paris and other major cities of France, where the transposition of the American movement "Black Lives Matter" has so far struggled to impose itself.

                                    <p>"I believe that the situation of our two countries is not entirely comparable, either in terms of history or in terms of the organization of society," French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said on Wednesday (June 3rd). She called for caution in the face of the comparison between police violence in the United States and in France, the day after the rally for Adama Traoré, which mobilized some 20,000 people in Paris and other French cities, echoing the anti-racist protests that have shaken the United States since the death of George Floyd.

Across the Atlantic, “Black Lives Matter,” a rallying cry for anti-racist youth, has been entrenched in American society since 2013. Born on Twitter after the acquittal of George Zimmerman who had killed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, the movement is mobilizing against individual and institutional violence and racism against African Americans in the United States. Since then, the hashtag has been ubiquitous on social media, and the slogan, reclaimed by many artists who have become spokespersons for the fight against racist violence.

Massively shared on the Internet, and just as massively displayed in the street on Tuesday, during the rally for Adama Traoré, the slogan has so far not federated in the same way in France, even after the death of the young man during his arrest, in July 2016.

“Tradition is less ancient than in the United States”

“There is an older historical tradition in the United States of protesting against racism,” writes Carole Reynaud-Paligot, a historian and sociologist, contacted by France 24. “There is a memory of these protests that took shape during the struggle against racial segregation in the 1960s,” she continues, adding that these protest movements have been remembered by emblematic figures, such as Martin Luther King, who are still extremely present in the American imagination. “His model took root during this struggle against racial segregation, whereas we do not have this tradition or this model in France.”

In France, the first national anti-racism rally, called the “March of the Beurs”, took place in 1983. That year in France had been marked by clashes between the police and young people in the Minguettes district of Vénissieux (Rhône), but also by several various racist events, the best known of which was the murder of an Algerian in the Bordeaux-Vintimille train, in the midst of a march against racism.

Since then, several protests have taken place. In October 2005, riots broke out in the French suburbs following the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers electrocuted in an EDF transformer in Clichy-sous-Bois (Seine-Saint-Denis), while trying to evade police control. A few days later, the sending of a tear gas grenade at the entrance of the city's mosque by police, who were shot by projectiles, further exacerbated the riots, which, then extended to the entire department, led the government to declare a state of emergency.

“There have been very localized protests that have so far struggled to spread,” says Carole Reynaud-Paligot, who was also scientific co-curator of the exhibition “We and Others – From Prejudice to Racism”, at the Museum of Man in Paris in 2017-2018.

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Zyed Benna, 15, and Bouna Traoré, 17, died in an electrical transformer in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005 as they sought to evade police control. © Joel Saget, AFP
    </div>After the "Zyed and Bouna case", other events have nevertheless marked France, including, recently, "the Adama Traoré case" in 2016, and "Theo case" in 2017. The latter provoked anger, leading to diffuse protests, without instilling an anti-racist wave in France. The slogans "Black Lives Matter" have certainly been used here and there, during marches in support of Adama Traoré's family, or in demonstrations against police violence in the wake of the Theo case, but nothing, since the "March of the Beurs", had resembled a global, multicultural movement, organized beyond political divides. "The tradition is less ancient than in the United States," insists Carole Reynaud-Paligot. "Yesterday's rally took place on a larger scale, so it's probably the beginning of a more general mobilization," she continues, believing that it will probably take longer to see the entire population mobilize.

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Adama Traoré, 24, died after his arrest in Beaumont-sur-Oise (Val-d'Oise) in July 2016.
Adama Traoré, 24, died after his arrest in Beaumont-sur-Oise (Val-d’Oise) in July 2016. © Thomas Samson, AFP
    </div><strong>"Something is starting"</strong> 

Taking the example of “Black Lives Matter” and the gathering for Adama Traoré on Tuesday, the historian, a professor at the University of Burgundy, adds that these movements can only grow if other social actors engage. Social actors, including the media, intellectuals “who are few to have mobilized and brought this cause to France”, but also politicians.

“I put all this in the general analyses that I have been able to do since this exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme,” she continues, stressing the importance of putting events in context and observing the role of social actors as spokespersons for mobilization. According to Carole Reynaud-Paligot, the role of politics is eminently important and helps to explain the different levels of mobilization in France and the United States. “If the outrage is so strong in the United States, it is also because of the positions of the American president that are inconceivable in a democracy,” she said, noting that “the stronger the provocation of the president, the more the response is that of indignation and anger.”

In France, “we are not up to the task either, but the situation is different,” explains the historian. “We probably don’t have the exemplary attitude, because we need more political mobilization and a greater commitment to the fight against racism, but we are not in positions as outrageous as those of the current President of the United States.”

However, Carole Reynaud-Paligot believes that the mobilization is quite insufficient, although France legislated in 1972 by creating, via Pleven Law, specific offences of insult, racial defamation, but also provocation to discrimination, hatred or racial violence. “All this remains timid,” says the historian, who should focus on the problem of racism in the police, focusing more on police training.

With regard to a national mobilization against racism, and the advent of a French-style “Black Lives Matter”, the historian and sociologist nevertheless believes that “something is beginning”, reinforced by the “unquestionable” role of social networks that allow to unite on a larger scale, and all social classes combined.


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