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The George Floyd Moment Awakens Europe

adam traore protesters in paris france

Protesters gather after French medical experts exonerated the gendarmes involved in the arrest of Adama Traore, a young black man who died in police custody in 2016, outside the "Tribunal de Paris" courthouse in Paris on June 2, 2020. (Stephane de Sakutin/AFP via Getty Images) 

By Friday, 12 June 2020 03:05 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Once, there was the shot that was heard around the world.

It was the French who first heard the patriot’s shot aimed at His Majesty's redcoats on Lexington Commons because the French Revolution against its Majesty came next.

The time between 1775 and the storming of the Bastille was 14 years.

Yet, the chilling words "I can’t breath" have in a few days ignited broad public outrage globally, inclusive of France and the rest of Europe.

Without passing judgment about either the justification or the lasting effect of what is becoming a global phenomenon, what is occurring has captured public attention and emotions on a tremendously broad scale. 

But French commentators, until this week, almost exclusively focused on how the George Floyd murder was a manifestation of typically American racism, evidenced by long lasting slavery, the refusal to end segregation and state sanctioned discrimination against blacks until the mid-1960s, and the many instances of police brutality captured on television and social media.

And then, in just a few days the George Floyd moment has been transformed into widespread attacks on both discrimination and police brutality of blacks in many of European countries.

For example, in Bristol England anti-racism demonstrators are demanding that the statue of Edward Colston (the English philanthropist, merchant, and Tory member of parliament) be taken down because he was a slave-trader.

A petition is circulating in Belgium to demand the destruction of the statues of Léopold II, the monarch who undertook the bloody episode of colonization in the Congo, c. 1885-1908.

But the French awakening is especially significant.

The French Revolution was premised on not just "fraternity" and 'liberty," but also "equality."

In Paris and several provincial cities, tens of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets with George Floyd as their symbol to protest against their own police abuse and what the demonstrators see as institutional racism.

French racism that had been put on the back burner has now been catapulted to the front pages and has gone, in the space of a few days, from a nonexistent political issue to the number one preoccupation of politicians.

When France began to take a closer look at itself, it became very clear that the French police, who are almost 100% white, have systemically treated blacks and Arabs from North Africa with arrogance, disdain, and discrimination disproportionately. 

Could it be that singling out America was a kind of scapegoating for similar societal problems in Europe that are racial but also based on social class and anti-Semitic discrimination — giving politicians, the media, and the electorate an excuse to bury their collective heads in the sand?

The American problem was brought home quite forcefully because it turns out that here in France there is another George Floyd. A 24 year old black man, Adama Traore died by asphyxiation in police custody while held face down, with 3 gendarmes present, 4 years ago.

At that time, his death aroused public indignation, and did so during subsequent investigations of police misconduct. But until the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minnapolis, Minnesota, Traore's death no longer served as a national rallying point.

These days, Adama Traore's portrait, several stories high on a Paris building, crystallizes with images of George Floyd, to serve as broadly-based, emotional movements opposing police and societal racial abuse.

When France started to take a look at itself it became very clear that the French police that are almost 100% white; that they systemically treat blacks and Arabs from North Africa differently than white French men and women.

As in the U.S., the focus is on the police, who are the street and community representatives of the state and who are exclusively mandated to use force in the name of the state.

There are differences however that perhaps can be explained because blacks have been part of America’s heritage since before the birth of the country — while blacks in France and North African Arabs are comparatively recent immigrants.

From a general societal point of view, in France interracial couples have never been singled out as something shocking or reprehensible.

On the other hand, it's much more rare, than in the U.S., for blacks and Arab immigrants from North Africans to occupy positions as lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives.

It's rare that they are seen as guests at trendy restaurants, bars, night clubs, hotels, aand resorts.

With respect to the government, the protection against police abuse is not a constitutional right. Police regularly stop and demand presentation of national identity cards from anyone without any suspicion that an offense was committed. 

This occurs absent any suspicion that an offense has been committed by those being detained.

Such police practices have been largely swept under the rug as a political issue; that is, until this recent outpouring of emotion in the U.S. and now which is extant in France.

An almost nonexistent issue in national and regional elections has roared out into the open.

This "George Floyd moment" coupled with a revival of indignation over Adama Traore has brought to the forefront public consciousness about police mistreatment of blacks and the fact that overall societal problems between whites and blacks is not solely an American dilemma.

Mark L. Cohen has his own legal practice, and was counsel at White & Case starting in 2001, after serving as international lawyer and senior legal consultant for the French aluminum producer Pechiney. Cohen was a senior consultant at a Ford Foundation Commission, an advisor to the PBS television program "The Advocates," and Assistant Attorney General in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He teaches U.S. history at the business school in Lille l’EDHEC. Read Mark L. Cohen's Reports — More Here.

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This "George Floyd moment" coupled with a revival of indignation over Adama Traore has brought to the forefront public consciousness about police mistreatment of blacks.
The George Floyd Moment Awakens Europe
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Friday, 12 June 2020 03:05 PM
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