George Floyd Protests Inspire Fresh Scrutiny of Policing in Europe, Too

PARIS — The killing of George Floyd has resonated in Europe, drawing thousands of demonstrators into the streets of cities like Paris, London and Berlin. Statues of colonizers and slave traders have been pulled down or defaced.

The message has been one of solidarity with protesters in the United States — but also a call to look at racism at home.

The protesters’ cries have brought to the surface a history of discrimination, especially regarding police tactics, which are now being vigorously challenged in countries like France, Germany and Britain. Demonstrators have invoked the names of past victims of police violence in their own countries, while demanding that institutional racism be redressed.

So far, no matter where charges of systemic racism have been leveled, they have been met mostly with firm official denial.

“France, the national police, the gendarmerie, they are not racist,” the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, insisted in Parliament on Tuesday.

Yet available statistics, and the experience of Europe’s minority populations, often tell a different story, one that has proliferated with successive waves of immigration — like Britain’s Windrush Generation, which arrived from the Caribbean after World War II, or the recent influx of nearly a million asylum seekers to Germany.

In France, the problems are perhaps most acute, given a longstanding failure to fully integrate Muslim and African populations from its former colonies. The French police, a largely white force, routinely target African and Arab youths for identity checks and have a long track record of abusive arrests as well as deaths of minorities in custody.

“The list is too long,” Assa Traoré told a crowd of demonstrators outside a Paris courthouse last week, reciting the names of those who died in encounters with the police.

Her brother, Adama Traoré, was one of them. He died in 2016 after being arrested by three police officers, one of whom later acknowledged that they had placed “the weight of all of our bodies” on him. No charges have ever been filed in his case, despite four years of investigations and dueling autopsies.

“Justice for Adama!” shouted the crowd of some 20,000 people who gathered to hear Ms. Traoré speak, filling the sprawling plaza in numbers that surprised the French government, which had sought a ban.

The demonstrators themselves said it: America’s turmoil has erased an inhibition in France. “We needed what happened in the U.S. to make it happen here,” said Junior Tidiane, a 20-year-old student. “The influence of the United States is vital.”

Despite its own troubles, the United States has civil rights law that can sometimes be used to prosecute abuses against members of minority groups. But in France, the authorities have long made it a deliberate practice not to keep statistics of almost any kind based on race or religion, ostensibly to forge a common national identity.

Officially, there are no minorities, only French citizens.

“Don’t forget who we are: the French people, unified” in “republican liberty and equality,” the interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said at a news conference on Monday.

“The police, the gendarmes, they are the guardians of our republic,’’ said Mr. Castaner, often referred to in the French media as “France’s Top Cop” because he directs the national police force. He said that ‘‘there are no racist institutions, there are only republican institutions,” and that bad actors should not be allowed to “throw opprobrium on our institutions.”

Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, took a similar stance. When Saskia Esken, a leader of the Social Democrats, demanded action against “latent racism” in the country’s police departments, Mr. Seehofer rejected the notion as “completely incomprehensible.’’

The police union and some other conservative politicians also insisted that instances of racism in the ranks were isolated, though recent federal anti-discrimination legislation suggests otherwise.

“The Americans have not really solved the issue of race discrimination since the abolition of slavery,’’ said Friedrich Merz, one of three conservatives hoping to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel next year. ‘‘In Germany, we don’t have the same problem — and there is no latent racism in the police, either.”

But Germany’s record is, in fact, blighted.

A rejected Sudanese asylum seeker, Aamir Ageeb, died while being deported on a Lufthansa flight in 1999. Police officers had tied his arms to the armrests, bound his legs and put a motorcycle helmet on his head. When Mr. Ageeb screamed, officers pressed down on his torso and head for minutes. His autopsy later revealed “death by asphyxiation due to massive exposure to violence.”

In the summer of 2018, a Syrian refugee, Amad Ahmad, was kept in a German prison even after prosecutors confirmed that he had been wrongly detained. He died in September that year after setting his own cell on fire.

But neither Germany’s interior ministry nor its federal police collect statistics on deaths in custody, and there are no representative studies systematically analyzing racism in the police.

“We don’t have the same history as the United States,” said Klaus Weinhauer, a history professor and police specialist at Bielefeld University. “But we should not allow problems like racism also in its institutionalized forms to grow by not having an honest debate about them.”

In Britain, the protests have revived anger over police killings of members of minority groups, among them Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed in 2011 by an officer in north London. A jury found that Mr. Duggan was unarmed at the time, but that he had been lawfully killed. A court rejected an appeal by his mother. The police had said they believed he was planning an attack.

“Who killed Mark Duggan?” demonstrators chanted at a recent protest in London. “The police killed Mark Duggan.”

The police in England and Wales are considerably more likely to use force against black people than against those who are white or Asian — including with firearms, batons and irritant spray — and they have long subjected them to higher rates of stops and searches, according to figures from the Home Office.

Racial profiling by the police in parts of Europe has long been a common practice. For many, that has meant a daily ordeal of harassment and identity check.

“The police in France have demonstrated that they discriminate,” said Sebastian Roché, a leading expert on the French police at the National Center for Scientific Research, the CNRS. But the government, he said in an interview, is in a “strategy of refusing reality.”

If any more proof were needed, several harrowing videos that have emerged recently captured abusive police behavior in the heavily immigrant Paris suburbs during the coronavirus lockdown.

“Up until the last few days, there was an incredible taboo over this, really hallucinatory,” said Beatrice Jeannerod, director in France of Human Rights Watch.

The cases were not isolated, said Ms. Jeannerod, whose organization is about to release a report on discriminatory behavior in the French police. “This is about a daily, routine practice — people targeted because of their skin color,” she said.

Some 80 percent of “young men perceived as black or Arab” said they had been subjected to police identity checks, according to a 2017 report by the French state civil liberties guardian, the Défenseur des Droits. They also reported being roughed up and insulted by the police at far higher rates.

“Today, differences in treatment linked to origins, in relations between the police and the population, are widely acknowledged,” the Défenseur des Droits wrote in a recent report.

One young Parisian, Rayan Bardakji, recalled being insulted by the police after an identity check. He was one of 17 teenagers of African or Arab origin who filed a rare criminal complaint against police in the 12th Arrondissement of Paris for repeated, abusive identity stops.

“They would hit me, throw me up against the wall, slap me,” Mr. Bardakji recalled. “They would strip us, and hit us,” he said. One officer assaulted him sexually with his hand. “They would drag us to the police station, for nothing,” Mr. Bardakji, now 20, said in an interview.

In 2018, three of the officers were given five-month suspended sentences and ordered to pay fines totaling $2,250 to two of the plaintiffs.

“There are very few consequences for police who engage in these sorts of practices,” Ms. Jeannerod said.

A ranking police officer in Paris said that several years ago, he was ordered to stop Arab and African youth in a central Paris arrondissement solely on the basis of their ethnic origin.

“I was told: ‘It’s simple. In this arrondissement, you will stop blacks and Arabs. You can easily recognize them,’’’ the officer said in an interview this week. He requested anonymity for fear of reprisals from his colleagues.

“This was obviously illegal,” the officer said. He refused the order, and wound up successfully appealing administrative sanctions leveled at him.

Despite this, he insisted that the police force as a whole was not racist, occasional “racist remarks” notwithstanding. He noted the existence of his own minority colleagues — though in a brigade of 30, he estimated that only five were people of color.

Last week, Mr. Castaner, the interior minister, asked the Paris prosecutor to look into French media reports of Facebook groups in which officers appear to regularly make racist remarks.

“Police checks for no reason — we’re used to it, it’s our daily routine,” said Yassin Taamourt, a 30-year-old warehouse worker in the Paris suburb of Les Ulis.

A video widely circulated online graphically illustrates Mr. Taamourt’s recent run-in with the police, which left him with a black eye and a big bump on his forehead.

“As I was coming out of my building, they told me to come back inside, and they beat me up,” Mr. Taamourt said. “They smashed my head against the wall three times. And they hit me in the nose with the butt of a flash-ball gun.” He has hired a lawyer.

“In France, there is an incredible denial of the problem,” said Ms. Jeannerod of Human Rights Watch. “It’s been shifting in the last few days, but only in the last few days. We’ll just have to see if we really are in a moment of change.”

Katrin Bennhold and Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin, and Benjamin Mueller from London.

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