In France, Blame Le Système

Thousands took to the streets of Paris in protests that were “mostly peaceful” until they weren’t.

Although the protests across France were mostly peaceful, some violent clashes erupted later in the day between demonstrators and security forces. Some protesters smashed shop windows and set cars and a cafe on fire in Paris, while the police responded by firing tear gas and using water cannons.

The putative justification was a new law that prohibited taking pictures of police in response to fears that they were being targeted for terrorist attacks by islamic radicals. But the law went too far, chilling any ability to video police engaged in violence or misconduct.

One of the most disputed elements of the bill is a provision that would criminalize the broadcasting of “the face or any other identifying element” of on-duty police officers if the goal is to “physically or mentally harm” them.

This came on the heels of police actions that French President Emmanuel Marcon called shameful.

The demonstration in Paris took place on the same plaza where, only days earlier, the police violently cleared out a temporary migrant camp. It also came on the heels of a nationwide outcry over images showing police officers repeatedly pummeling a Black music producer for several minutes.

If any of this seems familiar, as if it could have happened in any number of American cities, or already has, it raises some questions. France has a very different legal and governmental system than the United States. Its culture is different. And yet, here are protesters, rioters, in Paris, Bordeaux, Lille, Strasbourg, Montpellier, Nantes and other French cities, challenging much of the same thing, and in very much the same way, as has happened across the United States.

Why? The sloganistic excuse here is systemic racism, which provides some significant benefits to those lacking the desire or ability to face cognizable problems. It’s so worthlessly vague as to require no specific “system” to identify, no particular problem with that “system” to detail and no specific person involved with that system to blame or challenge as to malevolent intent.

On the other hand, you can’t fix a problem that you can’t identify. We have systemic racism. France has racisme systémique.

But if it’s happening in other countries with other systems unlike ours, then what are we talking about? Is it the existence of police, anyone performing the job of addressing public violation of laws, engagement in violence, protection from harm? Is it the existence of government enacting laws to address problems that lawmakers determine to need to be addressed? These are the most basic and generic duties of government, and cross the lines of particular systems, cultures and nations. Is the upshot that government, any government, is the “system” that can no longer be tolerated?

As French authorities grapple with growing accusations of structural racism and brutality in policing, Mr. Macron said that he had asked the government to come up with proposals to restore the public’s confidence in the police — a demand he has already made twice this year.

“In 2015, we hugged the police,” said Ms. Beaufour, referring to the wave of solidarity for police officers that emerged after the 2015 terror attacks. “Now, we run away from them.”

Unlike the United States, and the inflammatory if ahistorical rhetoric about the police being promoted to further the “defund police” cries, France didn’t share America’s “original sin” of slavery or the claims that the concept of police arose from the need to capture fugitive slaves. Yet, they share the pendulum ambivalence toward their gendarmes, the love/hate relationship based on how the wind blows through the Tuileries, as if the police were any different one day to the next.

Complaints about the law in the process of enactment are also remarkably similar to here, as the language is too vague, too broad, to differentiate between the actions of terrorists who are determined to harm police and journalists and citizens who seek to capture police misconduct.

It was passed by the National Assembly last week – although it is awaiting Senate approval – provoking protests and drawing condemnation from media organisations across France.

“The bill will not jeopardise in any way the rights of journalists or ordinary citizens to inform the public,” Alice Thourot, an MP for Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party and the co-author of the clause, told French daily Le Figaro last week. Article 24 would “outlaw any calls for violence or reprisals against police officers on social media – and that only”, Thourot said.

Of course, the “good intentions” behind a law do little to limit its grasp as to conduct falling within the ambit of its text. And more to the point, the chilling effect of risking potential prosecution because one can never be certain that conduct won’t be subject to prosecution when it turns on such ethereal notions as intent.

However, NGOs and journalists’ groups are calling for the article to be withdrawn, claiming that it contradicts “the fundamental public freedoms of our Republic”.

“This bill aims to undermine the freedom of the press, the freedom to inform and be informed, the freedom of expression,” one of Saturday’s protest organisers said.

Whether that’s the aim of the bill or merely its consequence means little. As long as the law chills the dissemination of police misconduct, the end result is the same. In French, as in English, it appears that writing laws to address certain problems can be hard, if not impossible, without terrible “unintended” consequences.

It also appears that the problems that we’re told are uniquely American, a direct consequence of our racist history and culture, our systémique, aren’t really American at all. Nor are the reactions, protests and rioting, violence and burning, uniquely American. But then, the narrative here falls apart and leaves us without any serious consideration of what the problems are so that we can seek serious solutions.

14 thoughts on “In France, Blame Le Système

  1. Dan

    Almost makes it seem like the real issue isn’t racism, George Floyd, police brutality, white supremacy, Darth Cheeto, etc., but rather that all of those (and more) are being used as a smokescreen.

  2. Kathryn M Kase

    Uh, France was actively involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and is estimated to have transported as many as 15 million slaves from its West African colonies to Caribbean plantations over a period of 200 years. This trade financed slavery-based commerce, which greatly benefitted Nantes and Bordeaux, among other French cities. France abolished slavery in 1794, but Napoleon re-established the trade in 1802, which continued until its final abolition in 1848, when France compensated slave-holders for their financial loss. (Normitsu Onishi, “George Floyd’s Killing Forces Wider Debate on France’s Slave-Trading Past,” NY Times, 6/24/2020; James McAuley, “Europe: France confronts slavery, a demon of its past,” Wash. Post, 5/28/2016; Katrin Bennhold, “158 years later, France recalls end of slavery,” NY Times, 5/10/2006).

    There appears to be ongoing discussion in France about the after-effects of the slave trade and France’s failure, until recently, to recognize how slavery helped build the cities that comprise the Republic. (This even though there are signs of how the country benefitted from slavery-based commerce. E.g., in Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux, one building’s facade contains sculpted African faces.)

    Perhaps France and the U.S. aren’t so different after all.

    1. SHG Post author

      I hope you didn’t hurt yourself straining that hard. I always wonder whether someone making such an absurdly attenuated connection realizes how ridiculous it comes off to anyone who isn’t swigging the kool-aid?

      1. Miles

        At least Jay is good for a laugh. Kase is boring, smug, and generally unpleasant. She would make a minimally sufficient school marm in a mediocre elementary school.

    2. David

      So France had no slavery, no Jim Crow, no history of institutional racism, and this somehow makes the US and France alike in your twisted mind? Bizarre.

      1. Rengit

        I mean, the Times referred to the French music producer who was beaten as “Black” rather than “black”; nevermind that the Times and other media institutions such as the AP told us that capitalizing the “B” reflected the shared historical, cultural, and linguistic experience of black people in America. So Kase isn’t the only one who appears to think black people and the issues they face are the same in France as in the US.

    3. dN

      Uh, no thanks, Karen. Another hip elitist white woman trying to interrogate her whiteness by comparing Paris, France to Mobile, Alabama to show what a good ally she is. Like a building facade is the same as my ancestors’ blood in the cotton fields. Fuck that nonsense.

      1. SHG Post author

        Maybe a little too harsh? Of course it’s not the same, but I wouldn’t impugn her motives just because the comparison was so poor.

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