French police brutality in the spotlight as Adama Traoré death surfaces again

·5-min read

Thousands of people defied a police protest ban on Tuesday to denounce the death of a young French black man who died in 2016 in police custody. They link the death of Adama Traoré to the killing of George Floyd in the US, but can the two cases be compared?

“Justice for George Floyd,” “Justice for Adama Traoré”, demonstrators chanted in the same breath on Tuesday, blaming the death of the 46-year-old American and the 24-year-old Frenchman on police brutality.

“Both of them used the same words before dying,” said Assa, Traoré’s sister, who organised Tuesday's protest: “I can’t breathe.”

Floyd died from asphyxiation after a white officer knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes. His death has sparked days of protests in the US.

In Traoré’s case, one of the three officers admitted that he and two colleagues pinned Traoré down using their body weight but deny that this caused his death.

A medical report last Friday cleared them of responsibility, indicating that Traoré died of heart failure.

However, on Tuesday, even as protesters converged outside the capital’s main courthouse, a new report commissioned by Traoré’s family said the victim had died from asphyxiation because of police tactics.

“We are here because the justice system is complicit in police violence,” Assa Traoré shouted to a crowd of more than 20,000 people. “A judge is covering up the gendarmes who are responsible for my brother’s death,” she was quoted as saying in the daily Parisien.

Conflicting medical reports

Adama Traoré, a young man of Malian descent was stopped by police with his brother on 19 July 2016 for an ID check. Not having his with him, he ran to escape and was later found hiding in a house and was taken into custody, where he died.

The circumstances surrounding his death have long plagued France.

“Everyone agrees that Adama Traoré died from asphyxiation,” says Arié Alimi, a lawyer covering police violence.

“What caused him to suffocate is where opinions diverge,” he told RFI.

In four years, there have been several conflicting medical reports. The state’s autopsy initially confirmed that Traoré’s medical condition, combined with an alleged use of alcohol and narcotics caused him to go into cardiac arrest.

His family has always rejected this version of events and commissioned a second autopsy, which found that Traoré died from suffocation, most likely caused by the policemen’s weight as they pinned him down during the arrest.

State cover-up?

For Alimi, the Traoré case shines an uncomfortable spotlight on the alleged collusion between the state and the police.

“Whether you’re in the US or France, you find that medical legal experts working for the justice system will tend to protect that system,” he tells RFI.

“These experts are working alongside the police, who in turn are the ones investigating the wrongdoing of their colleagues. There is a total lack of independence, which is why when families commission independent experts we have findings that unsurprisingly make more sense.”

There has been similar ambiguity in the George Floyd case, where a preliminary autopsy cited pre-existing heart problems before being contradicted by his family, whose autopsy found he died of asphyxiation from sustained pressure.

Police tactics under scrutiny

“There are striking similarities between the cases in France and the US,” continues Alimi, although points out that the number of people killed or injured by police or gendarmes in France is “only 15 per year, compared to 1,000 in America”.

“While in the US, more people die from bullets, there is an increasing number dying from police tactics,” he says, referring to the use of chokeholds and neck restraints that killed Floyd and are alleged to have killed Traoré.

“In both countries, the victims tend to be black,” comments Alimi, linking this reality to the deteriorating relationship between young people in France’s poor suburban estates and the police.

US vs France

“This case is not about racism. France is not the United States,” reckons for his part Rodolphe Bosselut, the defence lawyer for two of the three gendarmes under investigation.

Paris' police chief Didier Lallement too rejected accusations of violence and racism against police, "repeated endlessly by social networks and certain activist groups," he said.

“The United States has a history, its own history of slavery, which is not French history,” Bosselut told RFI, referring to the French black experience, which has been marked by colonialism as opposed to slavery.

“Let us not import the US experience here and jump to hasty parallels between the asphyxiation of Mr. Floyd and that of Mr. Traoré in France,” he says.

Last November, the three gendarmes were questioned for failing to help a person in danger, but were never charged.

“M. Floyd was held down for several minutes, while in the Traoré case, we have a man that tried to run from police, who hid lying down," continues Bosselut. "When he was arrested, his two hands were taken from under his belly and handcuffed behind his back. The two scenarios couldn’t be more different.”

Fight for justice

The family’s fight for justice and allegations of a state cover-up have propelled Traoré’s death into one of France's most high-profile cases of alleged police brutality.

His death has tapped into public anger after years of little or no action by the state, explains lawyer Alimi.

“Before Adama, there were many others like Cédric Chouviat, whom I’m currently representing,” he says of the 42-year-old delivery driver who died this year after being held on the ground during a police check.

Calls by Traoré’s family for a reconstitution of his death have long gone unanswered.

“The battle is always almost lost from the beginning,” Alimi told RFI.

In the Traoré case, investigations are still ongoing to determine what caused his death.

Reforming system

For Alimi, the truth will only be revealed by an independent police complaints commission.

"We need a commission composed of former judges and police officers and people from civil society who have no conflicts of interest," he reckons.

Until there is independence, allegations of a cover up will continue to dog Traoré's death. "It is the entire legal system which needs to be reformed," he said.