Originally published in Pacific Standard on Feb 20, 2017
The case of a young black French man alleged to have been savagely raped and mutilated by police — one that recalls the Black Lives Matter movement’s bid for police accountability in the United States — may sway the outcome of the hotly contested French presidential election in April, analysts and activists tell Pacific Standard.
Théo Luhaka, 22, was arrested in the Parisian suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois on February 2nd. Surveillance video shows four police officers with Luhaka. One office appears to penetrate him with a baton, sources intimately familiar with the ongoing investigation have told French media. Censored video of the incident was aired across French news media.
Luhaka was apprehended, according to his own testimony, after he intervened when he saw the police harassing a group of youths. The police involved in the incident deny the charge.
Luhaka suffered a severe lesion to his anus in the incident; reports say he may have sustained permanent physical damage.
One of the officers has been charged with rape, and the remaining three are charged with assault. A hearing in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny was set for Saturday, though news reports have not yet surfaced on its outcome.
On Thursday, a police oversight unit — Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale — described the alleged sodomy in its preliminary findings as “an operation gone wrong,” and said it would wait for a ruling from the courts before making further recommendations. The IGPN — which falls under France’s Police National — could not immediately be reached for comment.
Some people in France’s suburbs, many of which are home to low-income communities of color, saw the IGPN’s language as an equivocation.
The IGPN’s words on the matter have been received in the suburbs as “alternative facts,” says Youssef Boussoumah, a member of Parti des Indigènes de la République, a political party that advocates for social justice for French people of color. When discussing the IGPN, Boussoumah makes reference to Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister, who “said you take a lie and you hammer it in every day and it becomes fact.”
A French administrative attorney who spoke to Pacific Standard on condition of anonymity explains that French police watchdogs have long complained that the IGPN should act as an independent oversight arm for it to be effective, but it almost invariably sides with police interests, and, therefore, convictions of the police are hard to obtain, even in the direst of circumstances. She likens this bias to grand juries in the U.S., which often side with police in allegations of misconduct.
The IGPN’s findings “might provoke new tensions, because some of the youth might feel the [IGPN] is trying to protect the cops,” says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior fellow at the French think tank Institut de Relations International et Stratégiques. “But there is not yet a crescendo in these protests, so we still have to wait a few days to know if it’s going to be similar to riots that we witnessed in the past.”
Protesters have taken to the streets in the last couple of weeks, but before Thursday’s developments, demonstrations appeared to have tapered off, according to Cecile Alduy, a professor at Stanford University and author of a book on French political rhetoric in the run up to this election year, Ce Qu’ils Disent Vraiment, Les Politiques Pris aux Mots.
“Right now the tension is subsiding, thanks to appeal to peaceful protests and calm by Théo himself and local organizations.” Luhaka appeared on French television, flanked by President Francois Hollande, calling for calm in the street after some supporters turned violent, according to a Reuters report.
The alleged rape could have major implications on the upcoming election, where France’s far-right National Front is expected to see unprecedented gains — particularly after President Donald Trump’s surprise win in the U.S. in November. Some have argued that, much as protests against police shootings in the U.S. precipitated the rise of a American candidate who promised to restore “law and order,” National Front’s presidential candidate Marine Le Pen might use these protests against French police as a way to raise the populist tide. Previously, French affairs analysts have indicated to Pacific Standard that a win by Le Pen would lead to a further global trend in favor of nationalist populism, which could, in turn, have devastating effects for ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities as well as women and political dissidents, both in France and abroad.
“The social and economic situation in the French suburbs has not improved at all since 2005,” Bitar says on the phone to Pacific Standard from Paris. Indeed, Le Pen has expressed her resounding support for French police, despite the video footage and the ire it provoked among many in the French public.
“After the 2005 riots, the government promised a massive plan to improve the situation of youth in the suburbs — social and economic development, job opportunities etcetera,” Bitar adds. “They spoke of some sort of Marshall Plan for the French suburbs. We found out today that this has not been the case, that the objectives have not been reached, that the situation remains extremely difficult in terms of youth unemployment, in terms of police brutality.”
Still, Bitar says the protests have remained relatively contained to the suburbs near the incident.
Several hundred protesters in the Parisian neighborhood of Menilmontant decried Luhaka’s run-in and other instances of police brutality, videos posted to social media showed.
PIR’s Boussoumah predicts that there will be more demonstrations in the coming weeks; Le Figaro reports that almost 2,000 people protested in Bobigny on Saturday, during which time at least four cars were set ablaze. There were reports of hundreds of other protestors around the country.
“Social media is helping mobilize people more than before,” he adds.
However the court eventually rules, it will inevitably provoke the ire of some in French society, Boussoumah says. “The young people see that their situation isn’t taken into consideration. If the government is at all sympathetic [to Luhaka], the far-right will say, look at this government, it’s only for blacks and Arabs.”
Whatever happens, the incident “will definitely be present” as a campaign talking point, Bitar predicts. It will provoke the ire of the populists and also serve as a reminder of the outgoing president and his Socialist Party’s failures to address issues of development, discriminatory and violent policing, and sweeping unemployment.
For the incident to inform the election, the protests must first reach a critical mass, Stanford’s Alduy says.
“The elections are still two months from now: Unless riots and altercation with the police continue to escalate in Aulnay-sous-Bois, there won’t be any profound influence,” she says. “However, the deeper impact will be on abstention: The event confirms in the eyes of the youth in the [suburbs] that nothing has changed for them in terms of police brutality and racism. One cop called Théo “Bamboola” — not far from the N word — and they will not vote again for the left this time.”
While young French people from the suburbs stay away from the polls, the incident may spur Le Pen supporters, Alduy adds. “On the other side, the police corps right now are leaning strongly toward a vote for the National Front — in a recent survey 50 percent of them said they would vote FN — and this incident might confirm them in their choice: Marine Le Pen is the only political figure to have absolved entirely the cops incriminated and she said there was no ‘incident’ until the justice system states a crime has been committed.”