As we explored in a previous analysis, the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly interrupted social and political unrest worldwide, from Chile to Hong Kong. The situation took a grim turn as governments worldwide seized the opportunity to experiment with new authoritarian strategies of control. France hurried into this alongside Greece and Italy.
Before the virus, France was experiencing a new wave of social movements against the government’s decision to change the retirement plan system. Throughout years of almost uninterrupted political disruption—from the 2016 Loi Travail protests to the Yellow Vests—the new emerging movement repeatedly attempted to reinvent itself in order to escape from the limitations of reformist rituals. Unfortunately, COVID-19 hastened the death of this movement.
One of the chief difficulties we have all faced is to be able to imagine beyond this Orwellian nightmare—or should we say this new reality? The global “sanitary” lockdown has forced us to rethink our strategies in order to continue fighting for a freer world. The May Day events offered an opportunity to evaluate our capacity to do so in order to break free from this new framework that the authorities have imposed on us in the name of “safety.”
In France, May Day was hardly an unqualified success. Although groups of people succeeded demonstrating throughout the country, the traditional vibrancy and offensive momentum that we usually experience was largely suppressed by strict restrictions on freedom of movement and by continuous harassment stemming from a massive police presence in the streets. For a lot of us in France, May Day 2020 left a bitter taste in our mouths.
But anarchists, political activists, and social movements per se were not the only targets of the French government. Indeed, despite the “sanitary” state of emergency, police officers remained one the only groups of people allowed to be in the streets. In allowing this, the French government gave a free pass to law enforcement to continue to do what they do best—to terrorize and brutalize specific communities and individuals. During the past two months of full confinement, at least nine people have been killed by the police, and many more injured. As a result, several days of sporadic riots against the police took place in various suburbs—known in France as les banlieues—of several cities.
Tragically, such a situation is common in France. Massive riots in the suburbs took place in 2005 following the deaths of two young teenagers as a consequence of pursuit by police forces. As in the US, our government and police forces have their own specific history of oppression and racism against communities of color. Here are a few examples to illustrate the structural racism inherent in the French institution of police:
This article from 2015 shows that, in the Paris area at least, a significant majority of law enforcement officers voted for the Rassemblement National—formerly Front National, an openly far-right xenophobic and populist political party created by ex-SS and other collaborationists under Nazis Germany. It goes without saying that due to the increasing polarization of our society—in France and worldwide—this political inclination among law enforcement has only increased since then.
Last April, a person of color trying to escape from the police was chased into the Seine River. After they caught him, the cops used racist slurs and started making jokes about the swimming skills of the person arrested. One police officer even said to his colleague: “[He]’s sinking, you should have put a ball and chain on his foot…”—making a clear reference to the tragic events of October 17, 1961 during which the French police threw Algerian demonstrators off a Parisian bridge, drowning them. The only reason we know about this event is because video of the arrest went viral online.
Finally, the current French law enforcement doctrine used in the suburbs and against these communities directly originates in the doctrine that France was using in Algeria and Indochina during its decolonization wars. We see here that after terrorizing populations overseas, the French government continues to terrorize and brutalize the same categories of people within its own territory. On this topic, we highly recommend the following documentary made by Désarmons-les ! and available with English subtitles.
Starting on May 11, France began to lift its lockdown. However, the authorities extended the sanitary state of emergency until the end of July, using this excuse to forbid any form of gathering in the streets. As of now, while shopping malls have reopened, it is technically forbidden to hang out in groups of more than ten. Let’s not be fooled—this has nothing to do with protecting our health. It is purely and simply a way to suppress any potential social unrest, as the authorities know that people are even angrier than they were before the pandemic and that they are only waiting for an opportunity to recapture the streets to express their rage. But for three weeks, that opportunity never came.
Then, a week ago, the riots in Minneapolis erupted following the police execution of George Floyd. And, exactly as the virus had in March, these riots completely reshuffled the cards worldwide—they were the spark that a lot of us had been waiting for in order to break free from the global fear and lethargy created by COVID-19. As flames engulfed the Minneapolis Police Department precinct, revolt spread around the world. On the same night that George Floyd was murdered, another case of police violence took place in Bondy, France. Police officers brutally beat a 14-year-old boy while arresting him. He his currently awaiting eye surgery.
On Saturday, May 30, a demonstration in solidarity with undocumented people was planned in Paris. The local authorities prohibited it and sent a large number of cops to prevent any form of gathering. The fact that the demonstration was not permitted didn’t discourage the participants. The police started by arresting about 50 people, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the situation and had no choice but to permit the wave of people to proceed through the streets. The fact that the police could no longer hold their positions was mostly a consequence of the fierce determination that undocumented people showed while leading the procession. Thousands of people walked through the streets until they reached Place de la République. Frustrated for not being able to keep the streets clear of protestors, the police started attacking the crowd.
Nevertheless, this demonstration was a victory in that thousands of people walked in the streets of Paris for the first time in the post-COVID-19 era—and above all because it was led by undocumented people. The same people who are “invisible” in the eyes of the government, the same people who during the pandemic were on the frontlines of the sanitary crisis, whether because they had to keep working in precarious jobs—like so many other people who were forced to work due to the fact that their jobs were considered as “necessary” by authorities, regardless of their vulnerability—or because they don’t have any income and are living in precarious conditions. The fact that they are the ones who succeeded defying the authorities that despise them and deny them any form of dignity and humanity is extremely empowering and symbolically powerful.
On that same day, a similar action took place in Marseille, where several hundreds of people demonstrated for their rights as undocumented people. During that demonstration, some people carried signs decrying police violence and expressing solidarity with George Floyd.
Moreover, last week, while the insurrectionary wave was spreading among the US— foregrounding not only the role that police play in our society, but also the urgent necessity to disarm and abolish this institution via a revolutionary process—a new medical report was released regarding the death of a young Black man named Adama Traoré in a French police station on July 19, 2016.
This official document is openly racialized—speaking about Adama Traoré as being “a subject of black race”—and worse, it exempts the police officers who arrested Adama from any responsibility in his death. Yet surprisingly, the report acknowledges that Adama Traoré died due to asphyxia. There’s no need to go any further than this: this makes it obvious that the official medical report is covering up the responsibility that these police officers have in killing him. We know that the preferred strategy of immobilization used by the thugs wearing badges is the so-called “ventral debicutus” (face down) technique, and we know that it often results in the death of the person arrested. This is exactly the same technique that Derek Chauvin used to murder George Floyd in the US and that French cops used while arresting Lamine Dieng in 2007 in Paris before letting him die in the back of their truck.
Understanding that, after nearly four years of judicial battles, the authorities are once again refusing to be accountable for their own actions and that they continue to blame Adama for his own death, fabricating health issues and conditions to explain his asphyxia, Adama’s sister Assa Traoré made a call on social media to gather on Tuesday, June 2 in front of the High Court of Paris to denounce the hypocrisy of the authorities in the case of her brother’s death, as well as police brutality and structural racism in general. In solidarity with those mourning George Floyd in Minneapolis, and as an echo of his tragic death, the call spread under the slogan “I can’t breathe!”
In response, the authorities used official media to denounce the “irresponsibility” of making such a call in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeking to spread fear among potential demonstrators in order to discourage people from taking necessary actions against a system that treats so many of us as expendable. Several hours before the gathering was scheduled to begin, police officers verbally threatened Assa Traoré, once again demonstrating the sort of “mobster” practices law enforcement employ on a daily basis.
That night, despite a significant amount of police forces deployed in the area, thousands and thousands of people answered the call and converged in front of the Court. The mobilization was massive—more than 20,000 people took the streets. The images speak for themselves. In our opinion, it is important to mention that compared to traditional demonstrations, this event succeeded in bringing together people from many different backgrounds, life experiences, and geographical areas. As we saw, this diversity was an explosive cocktail. Therefore, in the unrest to come, we should continue to do everything we can to be more inclusive. We should also ask ourselves why some of the participants in this gathering are disconnected from some of our other fights—could it be because we have failed to address their needs and realities?
After several speeches and chants—including the now internationally known “Tout le monde déteste la police” (“Everyone hates the police”)—things escalated. Police forces threw the first tear gas canisters; protestors responded with diverse projectiles and by lighting the first fires. The crowd scattered and riots broke out in several different areas. Protestors built barricades out of electric scooters and set them on fire; others smashed windows. Some stores might have been looted, but let’s be honest here—who cares, the institution of property itself is the problem here. Some rioters joyfully attacked a police station, while others were confronted police forces. Riots and wildcat demonstrations continued until late at night. For a lot more of pictures and step by step reports of the events that took place that night, we recommend this article and this one.
Demonstrations also took place in the streets of Lyon, Marseille, Lille, and Nantes. As we write, other gatherings are taking place in Toulouse and Montpellier.
Unsurprisingly, as soon as the first clashes broke out in Paris between demonstrators and police, politicians seized the occasion to denounce the entire gathering. The Minister of the Interior, Christophe Castaner, said on social media that “Violence has no place in democracy. There is no justification for the outbursts that took place in Paris tonight, especially when public gatherings are banned to protect everyone’s health. I want to congratulate the security and rescue forces for their restraint and composure.” This is classic political rhetoric, in which the Minister explains that the only legitimate violence that exists is that carried out by the state—and therefore by the police. This sounds to us like a blatant justification of police violence and murder.
The day after the gathering, on June 3, asked about racism within the French police, Castaner promised that “every mistake, every excess, every word including racists slurs will result in an investigation, a decision, and a sanction.” We will repeat it once more—we don’t want more “responsible” or “better” police, we want no police at all!
The fire that the Minneapolis riots have started is spreading—and at a fast pace. The courage and determination that so many people in the US have showed is contagious and inspiring. We hope that the events of the past few days in France herald a rebirth of social unrest. It is now our responsibility to continue pushing forward. More than ever, it is clear that this whole system doesn’t work, that it will only continue to reinforce the disparities that exist on so many different levels. We must put an end to it by any means necessary. From Minneapolis to Paris, from Brazil to Greece, all together, let’s build a new world on the ashes of the old one. Until then—and more than ever—smash capitalism, smash all states, and fuck the police!
Here are some more calls to demonstrate in the upcoming days and weeks in France:
- June 6, a demonstration against police violence is planned in Marseille, another one in Paris.
- June 8, Feminists organization are calling for a national demonstration.
- June 16, there will be a nationwide demonstration in solidarity with medical staff and against the government.
- June 20, another march in solidarity with undocumented people is planned.