Assa Traoré and the Fight for Black Lives in France

Assa Traoré, seen here at a rally in Paris on June 13th, has become an animating force of resistance to 
police violence in France since the death of her brother, Adama, in 2016.

For four years, Assa Traoré has been fighting to establish the true circumstances surrounding the death of her brother, Adama Traoré, on July 19, 2016, on the premises of the gendarmerie of the village of Persan, forty miles north of Paris. As the head of the Truth for Adama committee, she has become one of the animating forces of resistance to police violence and systemic racism in France. On May 31st, she posted a flyer on her social-media channels, calling for a protest in front of the Tribunal de Paris on the evening of June 2nd. “Un pays sans Justice est un Pays qui appelle à la Révolte! ” it read. (“A country without justice is a country that calls for a revolt!”) “Justice pour Adama, Justice pour George Floyd, Justice pour Tous! ”

French authorities forbade the demonstration, on the basis that it violated a ban on gatherings of ten or more people. Traoré insisted that the event go ahead, expecting, she told me, “Ten thousand, no more.” Somewhere between twenty thousand (the prefecture’s estimate) and eighty thousand people (the organizers’) showed up, to her astonishment and presumably to that of the French government, which had spent the past four years, Traoré says, “acting as though Adama didn’t exist.” Many of the protesters carried signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” or, recalling the kindred final words of Adama Traoré and George Floyd, “Je n’arrive plus à respirer” and “I Can’t Breathe.” Contrary to some reports in the international media, which ignored Adama Traoré altogether, the protest wasn’t simply a demonstration of foreign concern for horrific events in a faraway land. “We are Black Lives Matter,” Assa Traoré said, the other day, sitting on a leather couch at her apartment, in Ivry-sur-Seine. “The two fights echo each other, so that we’re pulling back the curtain on France, in saying, ‘People of the whole word, look what’s happening here.’ ”

“I saw you, I saw you all become targets,” Assa writes in “Lettre à Adama” (“Letter to Adama”), her book, from 2017, of Adama and his male peers. According to a report by the Défenseur des Droits, France’s civil-liberties ombudsman, the French police subject people of black and Arab appearance to identity checks twenty times more frequently than they do people who appear to be white. Running for president in 2012, François Hollande promised to institute a receipt system in order to monitor identity checks, but abandoned the plan under police pressure in wake of the 2015 terrorist attacks. In 2016, France’s highest court held the state responsible for “gross misconduct” in practicing racial and ethnic profiling. Civil-liberties groups describe the stops as frequent, arbitrary, and ineffective. A new report by Human Rights Watch, issued this week, characterizes the practice as “a brutal means” of exercising police authority, “often accompanied by intrusive searches of bags and mobile phones, as well as humiliating body searches, even in children, sometimes as young as ten years old.”

After the June 2nd protests in Paris and other cities, Twitter went crazy for a picture of a barricade that protesters had erected in the middle of an avenue using flaming Lime scooters, plus the odd moped, bike, and bistro chair. This wasn’t just a bunch of French people “cosplaying Les Mis,” the historian Arthur Asseraf explained in a thread. “We are not a country of baguettes and nice people in villages. We are also not the only country that has a problem with a racist police: this is not about France, or the USA. People are trying to connect the situations they face around the world.” The global struggle has local particularities, its own set of painful dates and sacred names. The sociologist Mathieu Rigouste has written that “the modern-day French police are shaped by the violence of their history,” having honed their methods of “surveillance and repression” in the former French colonies. The majority of their victims are young black and Arab men. They include the dozens, maybe hundreds, of demonstrators for Algerian independence that the Police Nationale shot and threw into the Seine, in October of 1961; the striking workers massacred in Guadeloupe, in May of 1967; Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, electrocuted as they fled an identity check on the way home from a soccer game; Théo Lukhaka, beaten and sodomized with a police baton; Lamine Dieng, whose family, after thirteen years of litigation, received a hundred-and-forty-five-thousand-euro settlement from the government, this week. A popular slogan goes, “Théo and Adama remind us why Zyed and Bouna ran.”

Working alongside other activists, Assa Traoré has built a movement that speaks in the voice of France’s young black and Arab citizens rather than on their behalf. By contrast, the slogan of SOS Racisme, the emblematic anti-racist movement of the nineteen-eighties, is “Touche pas à mon pote,” or “Don’t touch my friend.” Unlike SOS Racisme, which is closely aligned with the Socialist Party, the Adama campaign has stayed pointedly aloof from party politics. Its aims are both narrow (obtaining a conviction; banning certain police techniques) and far-reaching (challenging the entire system of “social elimination of blacks and Arabs” that makes the concrete goals so hard to accomplish). Its iconography is revolutionary: Traoré, an admirer of Angela Davis, whom she met in 2018, is often pictured with a fist in the air. Early on, she rejected the archetype of grieving relation, preferring to meet the public with stone-faced discipline–a “soldier, despite myself,” leading a “machine of war.” She speaks of “Generation Adama,” an analogue to the “Climate Generation” collectively mobilizing to save the planet.

Assa Traoré was in Croatia on the day her brother died. A special-education teacher in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb, she was chaperoning a group of students on their first trip abroad. When she learned of her brother’s death, she recalls, she felt an “electricity” going through her. “I’m going to defend you, I’m going to defend us.” she writes. “Do they know who we are? Do they think we’re going to keep quiet?” She never went back to her teaching job. Last year, the French singer Mallaury released a song called “Assa”: “Head high, arms raised, you lead the fight.” The afternoon of the protest, representatives of the Paris prefecture came looking for Assa at her apartment. She recalled, “I told my sister, ‘Take nothing from them. If they want to see me, come get me, I’m at the Tribunal de Justice!’ ” (The prefecture did not respond to requests for comment.)

In the French press, Traoré is often likened to Antigone, avenging her dead brother at all costs. The comparison is a little off: as the sociologist Geoffroy de Lagasnerie, who often collaborates with Traoré, has pointed out, she is calling for the enforcement of the law rather than revolting against it. Furthermore, while Antigone was intent upon securing a proper burial for her brother, Traoré says that she is trying to secure proper lives for “all the Adamas.” At her apartment, she was taking calls via wireless earbuds and admonishing two of her sons to clear the dishes from their afternoon snack. As they watched “Peter Rabbit” on TV, she talked about the damage that the fight has inflicted on her family. On the day of Adama’s death, none of her many siblings was in prison; four of her brothers were imprisoned in the years after his death, although three have been released. Traoré is facing several charges for public defamation, as the result of a Facebook post in which she named the three police officers that she believes killed Adama. She believes that the charges are part of a campaign of harassment against the family, while its critics have used them, along with accusations against Adama, to cast doubt on their credibility. Last week, a prominent morning show aired a segment titled “Who is the Traoré Family?,” in which a correspondent spent six minutes cataloguing the criminal records of various siblings.

Mara-Siré Traoré, Assa and Adama’s father, immigrated to France from Mali in 1960, the year of Malian independence. Both of his grandfathers, as Assa recalls in “Letter to Adama,” had “already spilled blood to defend France” during the Second World War, one of them returning home “at retirement age, less a leg.” In France, Mara-Siré went to work as a street cleaner, then on the trains, before leading a construction crew in charge of waterproofing buildings. He became a French citizen in 1968, and, the next year, married a white Frenchwoman from Picardy. They had two sons. They divorced. Three more wives (one “white, Catholic, baptized” and two black, Muslim, and Malian) and fifteen more children followed, forming an enormous blended family. “We are seventeen brothers and sisters,” Assa Traoré writes in “Le Combat Adama,” her second book. “There are no half brothers or half sisters, no stepmothers. We consider ourselves all part of the same family. And the Traoré family, it’s a family of all colors.”

Adama and his twin, Hawa, were born in 1992. Assa remembers Adama as an endearing, smiley boy. In 1999, Mara-Siré died, depriving the family of its financial and emotional center. At fourteen, Assa recalls, Adama already had a “sad and negative” vision of the future, even if his friends knew him as a charismatic figure. One called him “the mayor,” while another remembered, “When Adama was there, law enforcement didn’t do whatever they wanted. He demanded that the officers identify themselves, that they respect us. Adama refused the systematic tutoiement”—being addressed, rudely, in the second person informal—“of the police.”

July 19, 2016, was Adama’s twenty-fourth birthday. His mother rang him in the morning, mentioning that the mairie, or town hall, had just called to say that his identification card, which he was in the process of renewing, was ready. France was in the middle of a heat wave. At three o’clock in the afternoon, one brother ran into Adama, with a couple of friends, drinking a lemonade on the terrace of a local café. By early evening, another brother, Bagui, had joined him there. The police were looking to arrest Bagui for “extortion from a vulnerable person.” (Bagui was convicted on the extortion charge; he is now awaiting trial for the attempted murder of a policeman during clashes after Adama’s death.) A trio of officers pulled up and got out of their car, asking the brothers for their papers. Bagui coöperated; Adama, who had recently been in jail and whose identity card was at the mairie, took off on foot.

The officers gave chase. There is no recording of what happened next, and what record there is largely depends on police accounts. However, it is more or less agreed upon that an officer caught Adama and handcuffed him before he broke away again, fleeing to the apartment of an acquaintance. A team of three officers eventually found him there. Traore’s family believes that the officers tackled him—one of them admitted, in an initial statement, that “he took the weight of our three bodies at the moment of his arrest.” The weight of the officers’ three bodies totalled five hundred and fifty-one pounds. They handcuffed Traoré again, as he lay on the floor, stomach down. He said that he was having trouble breathing. Instead of taking him to a nearby hospital, the police put him in the car and drove him to the Persan station, a few minutes away. When they took him out of the car, he was unconscious. The police have claimed that they placed him on his side, in the lateral recovery position, but a fireman who was called to the scene at 5:44 p.m. testified that he found Traoré lying on his stomach, handcuffed, “face against the ground.” At 7:07 p.m., Traoré was pronounced dead. A short while later, his mother went to the police station and was told that he was simply being held for questioning. It wasn’t until eleven o’clock that the family was informed of his death.

Initially, the prosecutor announced that the autopsy showed that Traoré died of “a very serious infection, affecting several organs.” A second autopsy, requested by the family, ruled out the possibility of an infection. Since then, the state has issued endless reports which the family has met with endless rounds of counter-reports. In March, the examining magistrate declared his investigation closed, having brought no charges against the officers. In May, a court-ordered report concluded that Traoré had died of a preëxisting cardiogenic pulmonary edema, a heart condition perhaps exacerbated by heat and exertion. But, on June 2nd—the day of the big Paris demonstration—the family released another medical report, attributing Traore’s death to “positional asphyxia caused by prone restraint.” A few days later, the judges confirmed their intention to hear the testimony of two key witnesses, who have yet to testify in court, in July.

“Iwould like for everyone to recall that France is not the United States,” Christophe Castaner, the minister of the interior, said in an address last week. He acknowledged the protesters’ “loud cry against racism” but declined to call the police racist, saying only that there were racist police. (This was partially in response to the revelation, by the Web site Streetpress, of a private Facebook group in which some French officers published racist jokes and slurs. In French, a “bad apple” is a “brebis galeuse,” a scabrous goat.) If there is one thing that defenders of the current order and those who would like to see it overturned can agree on, it is that France is not the United States. The former argue that the police, who kill around twenty people a year, are far less violent. The latter say that France is in denial about racism. “I want to say that it’s even worse in France,” Assa Traoré told me. “People will talk about social violence. They’ll never talk about racial violence, contrary to the United States, but it’s there.”

Assessments of racism in Europe are often comparative, with defenders of the status quo insisting, as Gary Younge has written, “that it is ‘better here than there’–as though we should be happy with the racism we have.” In France, the academic Maboula Soumahoro observes, American racism can serve as “a theoretical tool to avoid the French question.” In a cartoon that’s been going around in recent weeks, a white Frenchman, absorbed in a newspaper article about police violence in America, fails to notice that the police are beating a black man right next to him. It is common to hear French people in high places invoking the warm reception that black Americans received in postwar Paris, while ignoring simultaneous abuses in France’s colonies; or pointing to American slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration, while failing to acknowledge that they are also part of the story of France. Many members of the overwhelmingly white French élite, brought up in a tradition of “colorblind” universalism, sees the mere acknowledgment of race as a form of racism. (When CNews needed a commentator on police brutality, it called Véronique Genest, a sixty-three-year-old white actor who once called Islam “dangerous for our democracy” and played a policewoman on television.) Objecting to the “globalization of antiracism,” they argue that American-style identity politics undermines the republican ideal–a French citizen is French, nothing more and nothing less–upon which France’s conception of itself depends. “In France, the fight against privileges is understood as a fight against inequalities of a patrimonial, economic, and social order,” Corinne Narassiguin, a black woman who serves as the national secretary for the Socialist Party, wrote recently. “That is the legacy of the French Revolution.”

In 2018, Assa Traoré told an interviewer who asked about Black Lives Matter that a similar movement could take shape in France, that it was “only a matter of time.” The vocabularies of the American and French movements diverge, at points: until recently, Traoré was reluctant to use the word “racism,” preferring that “each person can become aware that she is a spectator and that she lives in a racist world.” Even now, she objects to the phrase “white privilege.” She told me, “If I say ‘white privilege,’ I accept that white people are above me,” she told me. “There is no white privilege. There are human lives.”

The convergence of several recent events is serving, now, to accelerate the recognition of police brutality and racism in France. First, the gilets jaunes movement, with which Traoré has found common ground, has exposed large numbers of white French people to police violence, with the noninterventionist doctrine of maintaining order (established after police beat a French-Algerian student named Malik Oussekine to death, in 1986, prompting huge demonstrations) giving way to a resurgence of repressive tactics. Second, the country spent the past two months under strict government-ordered quarantine, giving the entire populace a taste, however diluted, of bodily control by the police. (During the quarantine, inhabitants of Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the country’s poorest departments, where almost one person out of three is an immigrant, were fined at three times the average national rate.) According to polls, public trust in the French authorities is abysmal. “After the coronavirus, people don’t have confidence in the government, just like we don’t have confidence in the government,” Traoré told me. “Whether you come from the Sixteenth Arrondissement or a working-class neighborhood, like me, we all counted the deaths.”

Le Monde declared, last week, that “the government’s tone has changed under the pressure of the mobilization.” As the center-right Les Républicains disavowed the movement (“Police violence does not exist”) and the far-right Rassemblement National disavowed “the Traoré gang” (“He didn’t get killed because he was black, he got killed because he was scum”), President Emmanuel Macron declared, “We must not lose the young people.” His advisers said that he had urged the Interior Ministry to speed up a set of recommendations on police practices. On June 8th, it was announced that the police would no longer use choke holds. (A week later, the director general of the national police reinstated the technique until September 1st, when new guidelines are set to come out, meaning that, in France, it is now O.K. for the police to choke people until the end of the summer.) Macron also asked the justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, to personally look into the Traoré dossier. In 2018, Assa Traoré addressed an open letter to Macron and Belloubet, which had remained unanswered. Suddenly, Belloubet invited the Traoré family for a meeting at the ministry’s Place Vendôme headquarters. Traoré declined the invitation, “offering herself the delicious luxury of reminding the Justice Minister of the separation of powers,” as the Web site Atlantico wrote. “What’s she going to tell me, the justice minister?” Traoré said, at her apartment. “If she did her job right, she would invite the prosecutor and tell him that the police officers should be arrested.”

When I spoke to Traoré, she was preparing for a round of television appearances in advance of a second march, on June 13th, a “mobilisation nationale ” that was planned for la Place de la République. That morning, she had given a press conference in front of a new mural by the street artist JR, featuring the faces of her brother and George Floyd. The actor Omar Sy was on the cover of L’Obs, declaring that “Police violence is everyone’s affair.” That night, Christiane Taubira, France’s most prominent black politician and the last great figure of the Socialist Party, appeared with Traoré on “Quotidien,” a popular program. “You’re a chance for France,” she told Traoré, video-conferencing in from a beach in French Guiana to offer her benediction.

At la Place de la République on Saturday, the crowd was large but not overwhelming. (The prefecture put the crowd at fifteen thousand people, while the organizers insisted on a hundred and twenty thousand.) That morning, Sibeth Ndiaye, the government’s spokesperson, who immigrated from Senegal to France as a teen-ager, had published an opinion piece in Le Monde that gently challenged the universalist orthodoxy that undergirds the national prohibition on compiling statistics that take race, ethnicity, or religion into account. “For this universalism to live and prosper, we must not hesitate to name things, to say that a skin color is not neutral, that a last name or a first name stigmatizes,” she wrote. Hassan, a twenty-seven-year-old black man who had come with a friend from the Val-de-Marne, was carrying a sign that said “Stop Aux Violences Policières.” He told me, “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t global. We come not only for Adama. We come for all the massacres that have happened. It can be me, it can be you, it can be our future children.”

The demonstrators were supposed to march to the Place de l’Opéra, but the police blocked in the crowd, firing tear gas an hour into the assembly. It was left to individual citizens to deal with Génération Identitaire, a far-right group that had draped one of the buildings that borders the plaza with a gigantic banner reading “Justice for the Victims of Anti-White Racism.” A young man, dressed all in black, jumped onto a drainpipe and shimmied all the way up to the top floor, climbing onto the roof to tear down the banner as the amazed crowd cheered, “Merci, merci, merci! ” (He later identified himself as Acrobate94, an extreme-sports adept with a major YouTube following, who just happened to be in the crowd.) As the police were tear-gassing people, their colleagues in the public-relations department admonished the protesters for anti-Semitism. “ ‘Dirty Jews,’ chanted by the demonstrators,” the Prefecture tweeted mid-demo. The video camera, as ever, provided necessary context: in a clip that attendees circulated in response to the police claim, Assa Traoré, wearing a “Justice for Adama” T-shirt, yelled into a microphone. “If there were anti-Semitic remarks today, we are all Christians, Jews, Muslims; we are all French,” she said. “Racists have no place in our fight!”

Among the protesters was Amal Bentounsi, the sister of Amine Bentounsi, whom police fatally shot during an arrest, in 2012. In 2017, after a five-year legal fight, Bentounsi managed to obtain a rare conviction for her brother’s killer. “We are happy to see the crowds but sad we had to wait for the death of George Floyd,” she told me. “The fear is that it’s a one-time indignation, that in several months we’ll find ourselves alone again.” The day after the protest, President Macron addressed the nation. He seemed less concerned with keeping the youth on board than with fending off the far-right Rassemblement National, which will likely present his strongest opposition in the Presidential election in 2022. “We will be intractable in the face of racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination, and new, strong decisions will be made,” he said, wanly, while promising that France’s statues would stand, and pledging strong support for the police, some of whom had spent the week counter-protesting, by throwing their handcuffs on the ground, in various cities. The word “race” was removed from the French Constitution in 2018, on the ground that race is a social construct. Macron didn’t say it, nor did he mention George Floyd, Adama Traoré, or any other victim of police brutality. But, for the moment, at least, the omertà is being challenged, the ground between theory and reality being hesitantly tread. “You had all these books, all these radio appearances with intellectuals talking about ‘le monde après’ ”—the world after, Assa Traoré told me. “ ‘Le monde après’ happened in the street on June 2nd, when the planet, the whole world, went out and said, ‘Things are going to change.’ ”

Lauren Collins