Young immigrants in French suburbs bear brunt of police violence

Anna Pujol-Mazzini
·6-min read
Police clashed with young people in Lyon last month after claims of brutality by officers - GETTY IMAGES
Police clashed with young people in Lyon last month after claims of brutality by officers - GETTY IMAGES

At a red light, a boy stops his scooter, not wearing a helmet. Within seconds, police officers approach him and ask him for the vehicle’s papers.

Quickly, one of the officers becomes aggressive and insults one of the teenagers, who pushes back and is roughly thrown to the ground and immobilised.

In fact, the police car is imaginary, made up of four chairs, two at the front and two at the back. The protagonists, meanwhile, are a group of young men from the hard-scrabble Lyon suburb of Vaulx-en-Velin who have set up a programme, Policite, aimed at encouraging smoother relations between locals and police.

Cyril Boccara, the animator, claps his hands to stop the scene. “What do you think went wrong here? What should the cops have done?” he asks 25 teenagers who have gathered to discuss their often-fraught relationship with security forces.

Ideas abound in the spacious, beige-walled community centre meeting room: the officer’s colleague could have stepped in to defuse the tension, for example, some say.

Police in Lyon have often been accused of violent tactics - GETTY IMAGES
Police in Lyon have often been accused of violent tactics - GETTY IMAGES

For these kids, all from Vaulx-en-Velin, where grey tower blocks blend in with the concrete and two-thirds of residents are of immigrant origin, such standoffs pepper daily life.

Their complaints may have long gone unheeded but after a year of anti-police protests, urban violence and a string of police brutality videos widely circulated on social media, the police are now under growing pressure to regain the trust of French citizens.

It would have been interesting to hear a reaction from a real police officer. The fact that none attended speaks volumes about the level of relations and the immensity of the task at hand.

In terms of police-suburbs relations, Vaulx-en-Velin, a town of 50,000, is a highly symbolic banlieue, a French term for the poorer suburbs on the outskirts of large cities inhabited largely by the descendants of immigrants. 

The town - where the poverty rate runs at 33 per cent, almost twice the national average - has regularly made the evening news for its images of burning cars and young people throwing rocks at the police since the 1980s.

Lyon has for decades witnessed clashes between citizens and the police - GETTY IMAGES
Lyon has for decades witnessed clashes between citizens and the police - GETTY IMAGES

In 1990, when 21-year-old Thomas Claudio died in a motorbike accident after a collision with a police car, the town was set ablaze for five days to chants of “the police kills".

“There is a real problem of representation: for [the police] all young people from the banlieues, I feel like we’re not fully considered like citizens. It’s like we don’t have any rights,” said Walid Semail, a 20-year-old business student from Vaulx-en-Velin.

Several young men interviewed by The Telegraph in the town said they had been arbitrarily arrested, insulted and hit by police officers, often more than once, echoing broader criticism of discrimination and arbitrary violence by the police across France.

Basem Slimani (not his real name) was strangled, hit in the head and thrown to the ground by four police officers while he was filming an identity check in Lyon, he said. He passed out during the attack.

Left unable to work for several days, he went to several police stations which refused to take his complaint, he said. He sent letters to the mayor and the rights ombudsman and tried to press charges for over a year. But nothing happened.

“I had evidence, I had support, and with all this it didn’t go anywhere. I told myself, if I couldn’t press charges, how is anyone else supposed to do it?”

The Vaulx-en-Vélin scheme is not alone. Across France, several local nonprofits are setting up meetings between citizens from disadvantaged areas and police officers to shatter the preconceived ideas each has about the other and prevent such violence.

An anti-deportation protester in Le Puy-en-Velay, central France, last month with a placard that reads:
An anti-deportation protester in Le Puy-en-Velay, central France, last month with a placard that reads: "No border = happiness" - GETTY IMAGES

In Paris’ 18th arrondissement, Espoir 18 members introduce new police recruits to the customs of their neighbourhood. The Citizens, Police and Justice Agora was founded by a former police officer to explain policing to citizens.

As president Emmanuel Macron seeks to woo Marine Le Pen’s far-right voters on security issues ahead of a 2022 election, he will have to tread a delicate path between appearing tough on policing and answering the increasingly loud calls for reform.

In the past twenty years, French security forces have become more armed, more aggressive and more deadly to citizens, according to researchers.

In France, “we have more weapons and more people killed by police” than in Britain or Germany, said Sebastian Roché, a researcher on police-citizen relations at the National Center for Scientific Research.

The government itself is making attempts to restore the relationship, such as a plan to get all police officers will wear body cameras by the summer.

Marine Le Pen appeals to right-wing voters who want more protection for the police - GETTY IMAGES
Marine Le Pen appeals to right-wing voters who want more protection for the police - GETTY IMAGES

It is also currently working on a national consultation which aims to present a major reform of national security ahead of next year’s presidential election, known as Beauvau de la Sécurité. The theme of its first roundtable, in February: police-population relations. 

In a bid to get young people, particularly from the banlieues to know security forces better, the ministry of interior has created 10,000 internships and jobs for people under 26.

Proposals such as creating zones free of identity checks or giving residents receipts when they are searched have also been debated but have not been adopted so far.

Officials have long denied the existence of police brutality and discrimination in France, where the collection of ethnic statistics is illegal. “When I hear the words ‘police brutality,’ I choke,” interior minister Gerald Darmanin told the national assembly last year.

“I do not share the idea that there is a separation between police and citizens. We need to make people understand the difficulties experienced by the police,” he said in a separate hearing.

The Monmousseau building in Lyon was pulled down this week, part of a programme of urban renewal - GETTY IMAGES
The Monmousseau building in Lyon was pulled down this week, part of a programme of urban renewal - GETTY IMAGES

Many police officers and their powerful unions instead say they are under constant attack by citizens and are not given sufficient freedom, protection and resources to fight crime in “lawless areas” in the suburbs, rife with violence and drug trafficking.

Attacks against police officers have doubled in the past 20 years, and 85 such incidents are reported every day. Ms Le Pen centres her rhetoric around security issues. According to several studies, around half of security forces vote for her National Rally party.

For Mokrane Kessi, a former lawmaker in Venissieux, another of the poorest suburbs of Lyon, citizens of these areas are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“We are taken hostage on our estates between drug dealers and the police,” he told The Telegraph. “Some generations may be lost and irretrievable, but we need to act for the future generations. Otherwise there will be a catastrophe.”

If Vaulx-en-Velin is anything to go by, the current situation is bleak. After five years of work, “absolutely nothing” has changed, says Walid Semail. The handful of face-to-face meetings with the local police have now ground to a halt. The local police precinct did not respond to requests for comment.

“The longer we do this, the more we realise it will take a long time for change to happen.”

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