As racial injustice reached a breaking point in the United States following the murder of George Floyd, people around the world have been reminded of the extent to which systemic racism pervades their communities. These issues transcend borders and are a cause of concern in France, too, along with other countries in Europe.
While — according to French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye — "the situations [in the US and France] are not quite the same, neither from a historical point of view nor one of social structure," racial and police-related violence is still a problem throughout the country.
In France, people of color are 20 times more likely to be checked by the police, according to a report by Défenseur des Droits.
The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) reports that this kind of profiling affects Black people 11.7 times more than their white counterparts — sometimes resulting in violent altercations with the police. With recent lockdowns due to COVID-19, racial violence has also gotten worse, according to a recent report from Amnesty International.
In 2016, 24-year-old Adama Traoré died following an encounter with the police. The circumstances of his death were similar to those surrounding the death of Floyd, four years later. Traoré’s last words, too, were, "I can't breathe."
Following the release of a new medical report on May 29 that questioned the responsibility of police officers in the Traoré's death, some 20,000 demonstrators, actors, and activists took to the streets of Paris to protest against racism and police brutality in France, and in solidarity with the US.
We spoke with three Black activists about their experiences and why it is important to tackle racism across borders.
Anthony Vincent is 26 years old. As a Black, queer, independent journalist, he believes that "the fight chose him" rather than the other way around.
While he has always been conscious of his identity, it is only as he aged that he really started noticing how common racism was in France — especially in his professional and personal relationships.
But Traoré’s death in 2016 is what pushed him to take action.
"I knew I was Black; my mother had told me I'd have to work four times harder than everyone else if I wanted to succeed, but I never thought it could also get me killed," Vincent told Global Citizen. "I was aware of the situation in the United States — with Black Lives Matter, back in 2013 — but it felt like it was all happening so far away. When it happened to Adama Traoré, we were almost the same age. It could've been me or my little brother, and that really hit home. That’s when I told myself, 'This can’t go on. I have to get involved.'"
His experiences, confronting both racism and homophobia, led him to create Extimité, a unique podcast relating the experiences of marginalized individuals in France. By allowing people to speak up through this platform, he hopes to highlight the systemic nature of racism, and other forms of oppression that exist in France.
"I am no community organizer, but I’d like to think that you can also fight this battle through education, knowledge, and self-care," he said.
This not only involves dismantling people's unconscious biases, but also raising awareness about racism and police violence — which both affect the US and France in different ways. And while recent events in the US have sparked a conversation about racism on a global scale, Vincent points out that there is still a long way to go in France — where prone restraint is still legal, and where 1,520 complaints about the ethics of security forces were filed in 2018 alone.
For things to change, Vincent says it is essential to move away from color blindness, for people to educate themselves — and, most importantly, to take action and donate to organizations working to address racism.
"Awareness is good, but action is better. So, my advice would be to educate yourself, truly — and if it doesn’t feel uncomfortable, it means that you haven't done enough," Vincent said.
Safia Dos Santos
Photo courtesy of Safia Dos Santos
Safia Dos Santos is French-American and grew up in Paris’ 13th arrondissement.
Born to a Black Beninese-Congolese father and a white American mother, she recalls struggling to carve out a place for herself in French society, as a mixed-race woman.
Although she had always been well aware that she was different — both from her immediate, predominantly white environment and from mainstream anti-racism activists — it was only in university that she grew more conscious of it.
"In my first year of [my] master's, I was taking a course on gender, race, and class, where we had touched on topics such as intersectionality, racism, and its link to French sexism and classism. I thought there was something worth digging into — and, as an American, I was well aware of the different struggles that existed in the US," Dos Santos told Global Citizen.
Eager to find an environment where minorities could exist regardless of the identities that society had assigned to them, Dos Santos joined an organization of Afro-descendant women. The group meets to discuss lives and the activist sees it as a space where self-care is at the forefront — and where each person can grow individually and help others to do the same.
"There are different kinds of activism," Dos Santos said. "We wanted to create a space where you don't have to fight all the time. You can put the daily struggle that you lead, as a person of color in France, aside, in a place where other people have experienced the same thing you did. It's self-care activism."
And self-care has never been more crucial, at a time when racial violence is on the rise all over the world, including in her mother's native country.
Dos Santos believes that the fight against racism — no matter the country — is a global one.
"When I look at what's going on in the US, I find it hard to understand how we can move forward, and that scares me," she told Global Citizen.
But she also feels like it's the tip of the iceberg compared to what's going on in France.
"For the past two weeks, in French public debates, people have been saying that we're not as bad as the US, where racism is assumed to be more serious. And that hurts me a lot," she said. "People find it hard to understand that the fight against police brutality and racial segregation isn't a 'whites versus Blacks' issue. It's a common fight, and it requires both to move forward, together."
The key to this fight according to Dos Santos? Education. But not just anyone's education — Dos Santos believes that white people must work to educate themselves, to understand and question the dominant representations and stereotypes they are exposed to on a daily basis.
As a starting point, Dos Santos recommends reading Robin DiAngelo's book, White Fragility.
Through education, the goal is for everyone to become aware of the systemic and social nature of racism. Only then can we work at the individual level to transform society as a whole, she said.
Paya Ndiaye, 24, grew up in Paris within a working-class Franco-Senegalese family.
Like Vincent, she says she’s always been aware of her identity as a Black woman.
"As a child, it became clear to me that there were differences between people, depending on whether you were Black or white, whether you had money or not, whether you lived in Paris or in the suburbs, whether you were a woman or a man," she told Global Citizen. "I always knew that I was a Black person in a predominantly white country."
But she grew more aware of this as she moved through the French education system and became politically active. In Parisian activist circles, she often had to choose between defending feminism and fighting against racism.
Now president of Lallab, an anti-racist and feminist association, she says she has finally found her place in the French activist scene.
But much progress remains to reach a point where every citizen is treated fairly in France — and current events overseas are bringing existing issues to light.
"I find it very telling that something had to blow up in the United States so strongly that no Western country could deny it, so that in France, at last, similar battles that had been waged for so long could finally come to the surface," she said.
To help achieve change, Ndiaye believes it is essential to let people speak up for themselves and to raise awareness. But she also stresses the importance of making financial contributions to local and national organizations, such as Lallab, which recently launched a donation campaign to fund two new training programs.
And while this fight may sometimes feel like a personal one, it is truly a global issue.
"This is a very powerful thing, this moment when we learn that there are dozens of countries where people are reacting to [what’s going on]. It is a common awareness that anti-Black racism, regardless of where it happens, and no matter how it manifests itself — locally or nationally — has similar effects," Ndiaye said.
"The history of the United States is so unique, and other countries refuse to recognize that the same issues exist within their borders. We are ready to take action at the national level with the understanding that this is a truly universal struggle," the activist added.
For anti-racism resources and to learn more about organizations in France, check out this list created by feminist association Women Who Do Stuff.