L'affaire Théo: Riots against French police look familiar — so does the proposed cure

The police beating of a young black man in France has set off violent clashes between protesters and police almost every night since — with cars burnt, stores smashed by balaclava-wearing anarchists and dozens arrested. Plus ça change…

The alleged beating and rape of young black bystander by police again divides France

On Feb. 7, French President Francois Hollande, right, visits a youth worker identified only as Théo who required major surgery after his arrest, when he says a police officer sodomized him with a truncheon. The visit occurred Feb. 7, 2017. (Arnaud Journois/AFP/Getty Images)

It begins, as it does so often in France, in the suburbs of Paris. Clichy-sous-Bois, Villiers-le-Bel, Bobigny, Aulnay-sous-Bois — the names evoke beauty and nature, but the streets frequently become riot zones.

The latest explosion was triggered by what is now known as "l'affaire Théo."

The actors are new, but the roles are familiar. On the one hand is Théo, a tall young black man, born in France. Facing him is a squad of French police, all white.

Théo, a community worker with an unblemished police record, made the mistake on Feb. 2 of intervening to try to calm a dispute between a friend and a police constable. He was arrested and beaten and then anally raped with a police truncheon.

People hold a banner reading 'Who protects us from the police?' as they demonstrate against police brutality Feb. 11 in Nantes, France. (Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images)

The wounds to his rectum were so serious that Théo, 22, was rushed to hospital for an emergency operation. He's still in hospital.

News of the incident set off violent clashes between protesters and police in Aulnay-sous-Bois. They've taken place almost every night since — with cars burnt, stores smashed by balaclava-wearing "casseurs" or anarchists, dozens arrested in several suburbs — all despite a call for calm from Théo himself, lying in his hospital bed.

Standing beside him was the French president, François Hollande. He has praised the "dignity" and "lucidity" of Théo.

French fire fighters extinguish flames during a protest in Bobigny, a district of northeast Paris, on Feb. 11 to denounce police brutality. (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrations, along with the "smash and grab" gangs, have long been an integral part of French politics. It's considered a much better way of getting the government's attention than writing to the local MP.

Thanks to police videos, the authorities couldn't sweep the affair under a rug. A policeman was arrested and offered as his defence that the rape was "accidental." His truncheon somehow slipped into Théo's rectum. Three other policemen are being investigated for using excessive force.

Liberty, equality, fraternity — those words have no value here.- Issa, a young Frenchman, in 2005

To add to the tension, on Feb. 14 a friend of Théo said one of the policemen had severely beaten him just a week before the rape. France's interior minister immediately ordered a second criminal investigation.

With France's presidential election just 2½ months away, the "affaire Théo" has become a political football.

-The far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, backs the police unconditionally.

-The centre-right leader François Fillon blames the government.

-The socialist government calls for calm.

A elderly woman passes as anti riot police officers stand guard Feb. 11 during a protest in Bobigny, a district of northeast Paris, to denounce police brutality after a black man was allegedly sodomized by police. (Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images)

The nights of violence have echos of the riots of 2005. They started when police chased two young men who were later found dead, electrocuted at a local power station. The violence was far more intense and spread across the country for three weeks, causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. More than 3,000 people were arrested.

I covered those events. Walking into one of the suburbs that surround Paris in a ring of anger and resentment reminded me of war zones I had witnessed — burnt-out cars, smashed storefronts, almost no one in the streets.

Few wanted to talk to outsiders, but, when they did, what I heard was a litany of anger and frustration. These were young men and women, most born in France but whose parents or grandparents were from North Africa or former French colonies in black Africa.

Issa was one of them. Reading his comments in my old notebook, I was struck by how similar they were to the angry complaints on the radio and television today.

France's far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen has called young demonstrators 'scum.' (Alessandro Garofalo/Reuters)

"Liberty, equality, fraternity — those words have no value here," he said. "They only have value in the centre of Paris. Liberty — you go out and the police stop you five or six times a day. Equality — when you try to find work, you don't have the same chance as someone in a rich district of Paris. Fraternity — everyone fears the "other," the 'foreigner' — the black or the North African."

Those words, those thoughts are being heard again more than a decade later, sometimes in even starker terms.

'Stop and frisk'

"There exists in France a form of territorial, social and ethnic apartheid." Not the words of one of the angry millions in the poor suburbs, but the verdict of Manuel Valls a year ago. He was the French prime minister until last December.

And France's ombudsman has just issued a report on "stop and frisk" based on a survey of 5,000 people his staff carried out. While 84 per cent of the respondents said they had never been stopped by police, 80 per cent of those of Arab or black background said they had.

The survey fills a void. The police keep no statistics on "stop and frisk." François Hollande came to power saying he would insist the police keep a count. He also said his government would drastically increase neighbourhood policing in the volatile suburbs. Neither promise was kept.

Instead, facing terrorist attacks planned and carried out by young men from the same suburbs, Hollande's government introduced a national state of emergency and extended it three times. It also heavily reinforced search and arrest powers for the police who only patrol armed and in cars in the "flashpoint" areas.

Won't change

The gulf between French police and people they're supposed to protect in the suburbs has widened dangerously. The crisis is not new. It goes back more than 30 years. But as it has worsened, successive governments have treated it only as a security problem.

That won't change. A look at the platforms of three leading contenders for the presidency reveals something approaching unanimity. The way to deal with the suburbs is to hire more cops, give them more money and weapons, and make it easier to throw people into prison.

For good measure, Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader, doesn't miss an opportunity to call demonstrators and protesters "scum."

That was the word used by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005 when he was France's interior minister. Two years later he was elected president.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.