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French suburbs rage against police

Elizabeth Bryant
February 18, 2017

The alleged rape of a black man by police has sparked outrage and violence in France, drawing attention to the gritty banlieues. In one Paris suburb, however, youngsters have helped clean up the mess the mayhem caused.

Graffiti in Bobigny demaning justice for Theo L.
Image: DW/E. Bryant

Bintou Diarra-Soukouna always believed the doors were wide open except for one. After becoming one of the first of her ethnic Malian family to attend university, she was told she would never make it as an English teacher.

"So I stopped, and I regretted it for a long time," she recalls. "That's what drives me to work with youngsters - and tell them they can succeed."

Diarra-Soukouna founded Mejless, a local youth association in Bobigny, a dreary, working class suburb a short metro-ride from Paris. 

The departure point for thousands of Jews to Auschwitz more than half a century ago, Bobigny is now making headlines for another form of injustice. In recent days, the town has been rocked by protests and riots against police brutality following the alleged baton rape earlier this month of a 22-year-old black man from a nearby suburb during an identity check.

The man, Theo L., left hospital on Thursday, although he still suffers from serious rectal injuries. After police initially suggested the incident was accidental, one police officer now faces charges of rape and three others of assault. Authorities have since opened a separate inquiry against police abuse allegations leveled by another black man in the same suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois. 

Seeking justice

"Justice must be served," said President Francois Hollande, who paid a bedside visit to Theo and appealed for responsibility on both sides. 

Indeed, along with anger at police, the gritty, immigrant heavy suburbs, or banlieues, are again in the spotlight, with their poverty and soaring unemployment, pent-up frustrations and high crime. With presidential elections just weeks away, many candidates are scrambling to outline solutions in a race in which far-right, law-and-order leader Marine Le Pen is in the lead.

Young people run from tear gas police sprayed to quell protests in Bobigny
Bobigny has seen protestsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Mori

Yet Bobigny also highlights another reality. After riots last weekend, a group of youngsters, including some Mejless members, helped to clean up the mess.

"The youth feel they're not understood and the way they express themselves is through revolt," said Diarra-Soukouna. "That's why we need to work with them, to show they can express themselves differently, intelligently."

The association works with kids from first grade through high school, coaching them with their studies, getting them involved in community projects and organizing monthly cultural outings. Once a year, it takes them overseas, with Tangiers the 2017 destination. 

Mejless founder Bintou Diarra-Soukouna (middle in black hat) with other members of the youth group in Bobigny
Bintou Diarra-Soukouna says the youth in the banlieues need to learn to express themselves intelligentlyImage: DW/E. Bryant

"It helps them realize a difficult goal," says Diarra-Soukouna, noting the group must organize and raise money for the trip. "So many lack confidence, it's really incredible. They put the brakes on because they think they will never succeed."

'Inshallah you will burn'

Several Mejless members describe unpleasant brushes with police, although none interviewed had been physically abused. 

Assa Soukouna, 18, says police gathered around her and her friends as they sat outside last summer. Youngsters had set off firecrackers and the officers were looking for them.

"One of them told us, 'inshallah you will burn,'" she recalls. "He was pretty much wishing us death, even if we'd done nothing wrong. We couldn't answer because we knew we would lose."

Follow the Hashtag: #JusticePourTheo

University student Said Benalla described an identity check as he headed to school one morning. The police seemed skeptical, he said, that he was pursuing higher studies. 

But the rioting has also angered people. At a local grocery store, 17-year-old Risshie Iedragith points to the boarded-up windows, the smashed cash registers and half-empty shelves. His Sri Lankan father spent years building up the family-run business since immigrating to France at age 18. Many of the looters came from Bobigny, he said.

"They took the whiskey, the chips, the coke, everything," he said. "They destroyed my family's whole life in 15 minutes."

Accusations of police violence and alleged racism are an old story in France. The death of a black man in police custody last summer sparked widespread anger. In suburbs like Bobigny, many still remember the deaths of two youngsters from African backgrounds that touched off country-wide riots in 2005. 

While the current unrest is nothing on that scale, some do not rule out the risk of a repeat.

"In 2005, there was only anger, defiance and tensions," says police expert Jacques de Maillard of the University of Versailles. "This time there has been some organization - you have political actions and peaceful demonstrations. The question now is how do we move forward?"

Mejless members and other community activists stand near stairs painted by local youngsters in one example of local development initiatives
Community activists stand near stairs painted by local youngsters in one example of local development initiativesImage: DW/E. Bryant

De Maillard credits the leftist government for reaching out to the angry suburbs, rather than offering the mostly law-and-order response witnessed in 2005 under the previous conservative rule. But he believes there needs to be more political engagement, including a rethink of community policing that was largely dismantled more than a decade ago.

"In these neighborhoods, we have young police officers who generally don't have urban backgrounds, who are not trained to interact with the public to decrease tensions and who are in situations where they have to deal with a defiant public," he says. "So we have all the components of a potential problem."

Police frustrations

Dominique Sopo, president of anti-discrimination group SOS Racisme, outlines a thicket of problems feeding the tensions, from internal investigations of police abuse - raising questions about their fairness - to the sense among many banlieue residents they have little recourse to justice.

Authorities need to acknowledge "the case of Theo is not an isolated case," Sopo says. "It corresponds to something that's experienced all too often by youngsters living in working class neighborhoods, and they need to offer answers."

Police have their own frustrations. Last fall, many took to the streets, complaining they were under-resourced, overworked and under attack - not only by criminals and terrorists, but also by disaffected youngsters.

Many police "do the best they can with rigor and professionalism," Didier Martinez, secretary general of police union Unite-SGP Police FO Occitanie told a Toulouse newspaper. "They don't deserve to be stigmatized this way."

In Bobigny, Mejless members say there is little positive interaction between youngsters and the police - something they say must change.

Founder Diarra-Soukouna believes the town could establish a local variation of the "Black Lives Matter" movement that has taken off in the United States.

"Why not?" she asks. "But it has to be something that lets people express themselves, through projects really aimed to improve things."

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