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'We're Not Racist': French Police Say They're Being Unfairly Criticized

French police unionists fire blue flares as they demonstrate with a banner reading" No police, no peace" down the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Friday.
French police unionists fire blue flares as they demonstrate with a banner reading" No police, no peace" down the Champs-Élysées in Paris on Friday.

French police say they are being stigmatized during protests in France against police violence in the wake of George Floyd's death.

On Thursday, police gathered in front of precincts across the country and threw down their handcuffs in a symbolic gesture against what they say is unfair criticism.

"The police in France have nothing to do with the police in the U.S., and we're not racist," said Fabien Vanhemelryck, the head of the main police union in France, as he joined dozens of police officers demonstrating Friday morning along the Champs-Élysées.

Just days after Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis, more than 20,000 Parisians defied a ban on gatherings during the pandemic to demand the truth about the death of a black Frenchman named Adama Traoré while in police custody in 2016.

The protesters said the French police, like their American counterparts, are endemically racist, a charge denied by many top officials in a country that likes to consider itself colorblind.

Mathieu Zagrodzki is a specialist on law enforcement and a lecturer at the University of Versailles. He says police violence in France cannot really be compared to the levels of violence in the U.S.

"French police kill from 10 to 15 people a year," he says. "American police kill more than 1000."

But Zagrodzki says both forces disproportionately target minorities.

A 2017 report by the French state civil liberties guardian, the Défenseur des Droits, says people perceived as black or Arab are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than the general population.

"The difference with the U.S. and France is that in France I don't fear for my life," says Thierry Picaut, a black actor who participated in a rally this week.

Earlier this week, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced a ban on police use of chokeholds and said there would be zero tolerance for racism in law enforcement.

The police say they need the chokehold to restrain violent individuals and keep dangerous situations from escalating. Officers say Castaner has betrayed them.

Zagrodzki says strong police unions makes reform difficult to achieve – and he say French law-enforcement is in a state of crisis.

"The police paid a high toll in the terrorist attacks," he says, referring to a series of bloody incidents in 2015. That was followed by the long and frequently violent "yellow vest" protests that all but paralyzed France for much of last year.

The strain on officers has been intense "They have worked more than 25 million hours of overtime in the past few years," Zagrodzki says, "and the the number of suicides is very high."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.