French Left-Wing MP Danièle Obono: “Yes, There Is Structural Racism in France”

Danièle Obono

This summer’s French riots were a rebellion against police violence and the targeting of working-class men of color. For France Insoumise MP Danièle Obono, it’s high time the country attacked its problem of entrenched racism.

Danièle Obono of the French National Assembly speaking at the Stand Up to Racism international conference on October 15, 2022 in London, England. (Guy Smallman / Getty Images)

Interview by
Cole Stangler

France saw an outpouring of riots and protests this summer, after the police killing of seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk in a working-class neighborhood of the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. A widely circulated video showed an officer shooting the French-Algerian teenager at point-blank range during a traffic stop. The tragedy marked the latest episode of police brutality in France — and of the excessive use of force against young men of color, in particular.

While the killing initially sparked discussion over policing and racial profiling, national media attention quickly shifted to the riots, which saw violent confrontations between law enforcement and young people in the streets. In Marseille, a twenty-seven-year-old man died shortly after being hit by a blast ball fired by police and a twenty-two-year-old suffered a skull fracture at the hands of law enforcement.

After a prosecutor opened an investigation into the latter case — detaining an officer suspected of criminal activity — police unions went on the offensive, calling for the release of their colleague and cheering on an unofficial work stoppage to protest. In defiance of the law and existing court procedures, France’s national police chief subsequently declared that, with rare exceptions, police officers “do not belong in prison.” Hard-line interior minister Gérald Darmanin underlined his support for those comments — and pledged to consider police demands.

For more insight on this alarming climate, Jacobin’s Cole Stangler spoke with Danièle Obono, who has been a member of the National Assembly for La France Insoumise since 2017. Representing a district in northeastern Paris, Obono is also a member of the assembly’s law committee, which oversees policing. She spoke about racism, police brutality, and how to fight back.

Cole Stangler

Is there a problem of structural racism within the French police?

Danièle Obono

Yes, there is structural racism in France, in French society and in its institutions, notably the police, which has a particular history. Within this history, there is a particular relationship with certain populations, linked to the colonial and postcolonial experience. There is also an increasing tendency among various leaders of different governments to use the police as a tool of social and political repression. This exacerbates this institution’s existing tendencies to use excessive force and to defy the rule of law. This is expressed even more so vis-à-vis categories that are subject to discrimination.

Over the last few months we’ve seen the revolts that started with the murder of a young man following a traffic stop. This is one in a series of deaths of young men of color during confrontations with the police, notably over the alleged offense of refusing to follow a police order (refus d’obtempérer). We’ve seen several deaths over this in France, whereas in a country like Germany, they’ve had one in ten years. This isn’t just one episode. There’s a systemic nature to this. It’s also linked to a law approved at the end of François Hollande’s presidency, which, as studies show, encouraged the use of firearms by police who feel endangered.

All these elements help explain the state of extreme tension in the country, as well as the police and the head of the police almost acting as they please. The issue hasn’t received so much attention abroad, but it’s extremely serious when the general director of the national police says that basically police should be above the law and that they shouldn’t have to undergo certain legal procedures.

Cole Stangler

It’s maybe just a question of semantics. But I used the word “riot” and you used the word “revolt.” Is that distinction important?

Danièle Obono

I think riots are a mode of political action. I had a tweet on Bastille Day saying “Today, we’re celebrating the most successful riot in the political history of our country.” It’s a foundational element of our republics and our institutions. I also wanted to highlight the contradictions of those who celebrate Bastille Day with a very right-wing, nationalist discourse and who forget that it was a riot involving the destruction of public buildings. This founded our country. So those who revolted are following a long French tradition. They’re not at all “regressing to their ethnic origins,” like [Bruno] Retailleau [head of the right-wing Les Républicains group in the Senate] said.

But it’s true, we’ve decided to speak of “revolts” since the use of “riots” in the current political and media discourse is denigrating and depoliticizing. We talk about revolts to underline that they’re a political phenomenon and that this is a political moment.

But personally, I do believe riots are political and that riots should be defended as a mode of action with a popular history behind it.

Cole Stangler

As you mentioned, the head of the police sided with unions that argue officers “don’t belong in prison.” Are we witnessing a radicalization of the police and their unions?

Danièle Obono

Yes. I’m on the law committee and we work on the question of the police. We held a hearing [in July] with the inspector generals of the gendarmerie and the national police. I was given a note that shows a drastic decline in the number of sanctions over inappropriate behavior going back to the gilets jaunes. This [trend] can be explained politically: authorities needed the police, and there were only the police [to support them] at the moment of the gilets jaunes. It was a turning point in the Macronist camp — to put it bluntly, they gave the police free rein.

There’s the specific question of police violence and there’s the specific question of systemic racism. But there’s also the more general question of the police. Polls show large shares of police officers vote for the far right. Their union organizations are also far-right, with a discourse that goes beyond the defense of their particular interests. [In 2021,] they organized a rally to support colleagues who’d been attacked in the line of duty. They protested in front of the National Assembly, essentially calling to break apart the Constitution. At the rally, the head of a police union said, “The problem with the police is the justice system.” That’s a seditious discourse about our institutions! And yet, the minister of interior was there to show his support, as were others. There’s maybe another problem on the Left.

We’re also seeing a growing autonomy of the police with respect to the guardrails and guidelines in place. We also have a [political] leadership that’s afraid of the institution because they depend on them and without them, they’d collapse. Police violence has managed to repress social movements. They have nothing left to protect against challenges to their policies.

All this shows the state of Fifth Republic’s institutions: these institutions’ advanced state of decrepitude and also the fascist threat. There’s a great article by Frédéric Lordon about this, on the “Police Republic” and the drift toward fascism. I think we need to take this risk very seriously, we’re seeing a symptom of this process.

Cole Stangler

You’re discussing two separate but related things: the question of police violence and then racism within the police force. What should be done to combat these problems?

Danièle Obono

Before answering, I’ll focus on what we’ve been doing.

First off, we’ve called things as they are. Last year Jean-Luc Mélenchon was heavily criticized for saying “the police kill.” It’s obviously true, but it was also politically significant. The idea is that we’ve given an extremely important power to this institution — to kill. But under what conditions? And are they following the law? It appears that in a lot of cases, this isn’t so. Stating this [helps to] recognize that there is dysfunction in the police, a problem of giving orders, a problem of behavior, a problem of racism.

But it’s not just about what we say, it’s about standing with people who are suffering. We’ve gone to demonstrations in support of families of victims of police violence — whether it’s the Comité Adama or the Vies Volées (“Stolen Lives”) collective — and today in France, even this isn’t so easy. We’ve been prevented from protesting and exercising our freedom of expression. During the revolts and riots, we helped build a broad coalition with more than a hundred organizations. This is pretty unprecedented because it includes both traditional social movement organizations — which are pretty white to put it crudely — and victims’ families collectives, which are overwhelmingly made up of people of color. We were able to do this and we also had the credibility to do it because we had taken a stance before. We had stood strong and said “police violence exists.”

This coalition is calling for a mobilization on September 23 for justice, against police violence, and for rights and liberties. The goal is to concretely be at the side of the people fighting for their rights and for their lives — because it’s a question of life or death for those who are the target of these practices.

Cole Stangler

The call to protest on September 23 includes a demand to repeal that 2017 law expanding the legal grounds for police to use lethal force over a refusal to obey a police order. But what about other demands, like getting rid of police ID checks that disproportionately target people of color? Among others, the historian Patrick Weil recently called for eliminating ID checks, comparing them to the old “stop-and-frisk” policy in New York City.

Danièle Obono

During the last session of the National Assembly, we put forth a bill to authorize receipts for ID checks. It’s not a ban [on all such checks]. But this is also a demand made for years by victims’ collectives, going back to François Hollande’s day. This was one of the proposals he said he would put into place but never did once in office. But it’s a demand that comes from the people most concerned [by the use of ID checks].

We’re also favorable to an idea put forward by the Defender of Rights [a state-funded civil rights ombudsman], which is the experimentation of zones without ID checks. The question is, what is the purpose of ID checks? Why do we impose ID checks and shouldn’t they be the exception rather than the rule? From a legal point of view, they’re supposed to be an exception, but they’ve become the rule for certain officers in certain neighborhoods. And that’s a problem.

We’re in favor of creating a receipt for ID checks. This is a tool that would help us better oversee this practice. We’ve seen in the places where they’ve experimented with this, like in Spain, that it improved the work of police investigations and reduced tensions between the police and populations.

Cole Stangler

Is the French left representative enough of the populations that it says it’s defending?

Danièle Obono

Our parliamentary group includes nine of the twelve deputies elected in the Seine-Saint-Denis [a département covering the northeastern suburbs of Paris]. We represent categories of the population concerned by the issues we’ve been discussing.

But the real issue is that in Left in France, like in a lot of countries, though perhaps a bit less in the United States because of the history — in any case, the official, institutional left in France — is overall a left that’s mostly white, male, and middle to upper class. A gap exists between the people concerned by these questions and the people who represent them. Still, things have evolved somewhat. I’m no longer one of the only black members of our parliamentary group.

This isn’t only a problem with the political or electoral left. When you look at unions, they’re not very representative of the workers’ movement at large today in a broad sense — which is extremely multicultural. When you look at the big NGOs, they’re very, very white. There’s a certain history of barriers in terms of representation.

This is something we’ve worked on, too. We can’t be a movement that aims to represent the working class if those speaking and in positions of power are basically middle-class white people. There’s work to be done to build a movement that appears useful to people thinking about getting engaged. That’s our objective. We want to keep building La France Insoumise and the NUPES [broad-left coalition] with this ambition.

One of the things I find really positive is the training program of the Institut La Boétie [a think tank linked to La France Insoumise]. While recruiting, we’ve tried to correct for certain biases: geographical imbalances and gender parity, but also socioeconomic categories. To make sure we have a panel that’s a bit more representative of different categories of the population — even if it’s not perfect — and to reflect different social and cultural origins. This is a conscious effort. That doesn’t mean imposing quotas, because that’s not the way we think, but the goal is to have people becoming leaders in this movement who are a bit more representative of the country. I think that’s an example of something we’re doing to try and correct the structural racism and discrimination that prevent many from getting involved and from becoming political leaders.