Anal rape of captive young men using truncheons, wine bottles or anything else suitable that the soldier or police office finds to hand, has a long history in French ‘law and order’. When dozens died at the hands of the Paras in Algiers in 1957, it was not just electricity and beatings that killed them. Part of ‘the process’ they were put through by their captors was being sat naked on an upright wine bottle.
That fact first came to me at the end of the 1950s when John Calder published in English some searing accounts of torture by the French military. They had been banned in France, the country that now proclaims an absolute right to offend any among its Muslim citizens in the name of freedom of speech. As a teenager, for years I could not look at a bottle of wine without thinking of those victims. Each was as much a part of French life as the other, or so it seemed.
The crime for which they were tortured was voicing the opinion that, perhaps, the Algerians had a right to run their own affairs. Theo in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois was not so adventurous. He merely suggested to four police officers in his neighbourhood in north east Paris that they might ease off a tad in their behaviour when questioning someone. His reward was a police baton shoved up his anus, tear gas sprayed in his face and number of kicks and punches to help him share the pain around his body.
That was at the beginning of February 2017. Less than a week later, the President of France, François Hollande, was at his bedside to apologise and his local right wing mayor, a former police officer himself, was spending time on the airwaves to demand quick and exemplary action against those responsible.
Why? Because France’s authorities have woken up to their responsibilities? Not a bit of it. The reason was very simple. The assault on Theo was caught on camera. Adama Traore, like Theo, a young Black man in a Paris suburb who had intervened to try to calm affairs between a police patrol and someone in his neighbourhood, died last July, asphyxiated by the weight of a police officer kneeling on his upper back and neck. Unfortunately, on that occasion no camera was there to film what happened.
So the police lied about his death. They lied to his mother waiting at the gate to the police station. She had brought some things for Theo, already long dead, and was told to come back later. Nine months later, and the official investigation into just how he died at the hands of the police is still limping along. It is the same with Theo. No police officer yet faces any charges. But two of Adama’s brother are now serving prison sentences, accused of violence during the protests that followed Adama’s death.
And in Aulnay-sous-Bois, though the police find it hard to work out what to do with their violent colleagues, they moved with lightening speed when it came to the protests over Theo’s treatment. More than a few found themselves in court and on trial the day or so after their arrest. Some are already serving prison sentences. Hollande’s quick and exemplary action has vanished in the midst of the professional omerta of the police.
Of course, lies do sometimes have a habit of catching up on people in power. Let’s rehearse three examples. Theo and Adama both lived in parts of France one can only describe as abandoned. Neighbourhoods where the tower blocks rise even higher than the figures for youth unemployment, where the population is dominated by the descendants of families from Africa, north or south of the Sahara. They are the parts of France where candidates on the right in the current presidential election, like Marine Le Pen, François Fillon and Emmanuel Macron want “the authority of the police re-established”. Macron might deliver the message with less venom, but his message on the police is the same: zero tolerance of petty crime in these priority areas.
Fillon and Le Pen add a nasty dose of Islamophobia. In his book Vaincre le totalitarisme Islamique (Defeat Islamic Totalitarianism), published last October, Fillon declared “No, there is not a religious problem in France. Yes there is a problem linked to Islam,” adding that there should be on-the-spot fines for possession of drugs and a police offensive based on “zero tolerance”. That’s the same phrase Macron uses in his tome, Révolution. All three, in other words, propose to act in a way that would only make matters worse, could put a match to the social time-bomb that is ticking in these banlieus. Only Benoït Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the left candidates, talk of some form of neighbourhood policing, a service to the community rather than the authority of the state.
As a convenient reminder, one time-bomb has already gone off, but not in mainland France. The lie that metropolitan France serves its overseas departments fairly has exploded in the face of the outgoing Socialist Party government with a general strike in Guyanne, the French départment on the Caribbean shore of Latin America. It took Paris over a week to agree that a minister should go to negotiate and the minister did not like it when the representatives of the protesters then insisted that the discussions be in public and not behind closed doors.
Another lie was one exposed in the courts this month when a police officer was finally found guilty after he had shot a man in April 2012. Amine Bentounsi was first said by the police to have been about to fire on the police officer who killed him. His sister told a protest rally over police violence this year that when she first heard the news on TV her reaction was to think that her brother “had played and lost”.
The problem with the police officer’s story became apparent in the wake of two simple facts: no weapon was found (other, that is, that the one the police officer fired) and the autopsy showed that Amine Bentounsi had been hit four times in the back. We are five years on from the events and only now has the officer faced a trial in which he was found guilty – a previous court case let to acquittal.
Ironically, this new hearing came as the French parliament approved a new law loosening the rules governing when and how the police can use their guns. The justification for this has been the terrorist attacks in France. The brutality of those attacks and the proximity of the perpetrators to their victims has obscured the need for a proper programme of social reform and community policing to resolve the catastrophe of “les banlieus”. Hollande’s 60 election “promises” included action on these neighbourhoods and a return to “local policing” that had been abolished by his right wing predecessor in 2007 in favour of “muscular”, heavily armed patrols.
There is a new and more general anger over this approach and the human tragedies that come in its wake. For the first time this month there was a national demonstration in Paris bringing together people from the banlie – too few, true – with other French activists from the left and the trade union movement – too few of them as well. But the beginning of an end, one hopes, to the ghettoisation of protests over police violence either among ethnic minorities or trade union activists.
And there is the third lie that opened up in France this month. A police patrol broke down the door of a flat in the north of Paris and shot dead the father of the house. For the police it was a necessary act of self-defence – the man had been preparing fish for the evening meal and had a pair of scissors in his hand which wounded one of the patrol. But the daughter said the police smashed down the door and shot her father dead in one fell swoop.
That’s not the lie that may come to concern the French authorities. The one that counts this time is that they always claim these are matters are internal to France. They ignore, for instance, the European Human Rights Court judgement in 1999 when the French police were found guilty of raping a young man with a police truncheon. This time, however, the victim was Chinese. Peking has protested and demanded assurances from Paris. Perhaps at last we may have found a way of getting a President to hold to his election promises.