France Has a Deep History of Racist Policing—Even if It Won’t Admit It

France Has a Deep History of Racist Policing—Even if It Won’t Admit It

France Has a Deep History of Racist Policing—Even if It Won’t Admit It

The recent protests sparked by the killing of a Black teenager are a response to a racist legacy that the French state virtually refuses to acknowledge.


The recent police killing of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French youth of Algerian and Moroccan descent, by the police in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre set off protests and riots across France, which led French authorities to consider declaring a state of emergency. The refrain from the protesters has been consistent: The police regularly practice racist violence. But if we are to take the French conception of “race” at face value, that cannot be possible—because, according to the official French view, race does not exist within its borders.

The French government notoriously does not recognize race as an identifying category. French officialdom sees race as a divisive Anglo-American conceptual import that flies in the face of the capacious, integrative embrace of French republican universalism (itself a contradictory phrase). French President Georges Pompidou put it this way in 1973: “You know, the Anglo-Saxon gentleman are sometimes capable of errors too, like the Gauls…and like the North Africans. On this point, I will simply say this: France is profoundly anti-racist. The French government is fundamentally anti-racist, and everything that resembles racism it excises.” Nearly four decades later in 2020, President Emmanuel Macron inveighed against the analysis of race in France as part of “certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States” that have had a corrosive effect on French republican unity.

Such protestations about the French intolerance of intolerance, however, are based on two false assumptions: first, that ideas produced by a global cohort of academics can be nationalized, and second, that the centuries-long history of French racial slavery and colonial domination based on ethno-racial hierarchy is somehow separate from the national history of France.

In other words, these views are based on nonsense. More charitably, they are based on a history of forgetting—a feature endemic to all national narratives. The French establishment forgets racial slavery in colonial Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti), the Black Code of 1685 that legitimated it, the suspension of normal rules of engagement in colonial wars,and the various imperial ideologies and practices that were assimilated into institutions in metropolitan France. As I write in my book, Empire on the Seine, the police of Paris are one such institution.

Notwithstanding official pronouncements of the irrelevance of race in France, from 1925 until the late 1970s the Prefecture of Police of Paris had some form of specialized police for North African residents of the city. Concerned with the supposed criminal nature of North Africans, their adherence to Islam, rising anti-colonial political agitation, and the relative freedom they enjoyed in Paris as opposed to the colonies, the Parisian police created the North African Native Affairs Service in 1925. Commonly referred to as the North African Brigade, its mission was to meticulously monitor the doings of all North African migrants in Paris and its suburbs. (As with all racist enterprises, its scope was never that limited; archives show that Brazilians and Venezuelans were subject to identity checks because the police thought they “looked North African.”)

Raids on political meetings, rough and rude treatment of this mostly poor and socially vulnerable population, and the production of a racial census of the city of Paris were some of its signal activities. The ideological architect of the brigade, Pierre Godin, argued,

One could be tempted to think that our natives more or less take offense to being so closely surveilled. That would be to misunderstand and forget their urgent need and desire, which is to feel protected.… Our surveillance is not, for them, a subjection, it’s a security—what is more, it’s a joy.

The joys of surveillance aside, the North African Brigade’s actions and very existence registered complaints from North African community leaders and ordinary people immediately. By the time of the onset of the Algerian War in 1954, there would grow to be a constellation of French police and social service institutions (who worked closely with the police) that targeted, surveilled, and repressed the North African community in Paris. Whatever minor differences existed between these siblings—including the Violence and Aggression Brigade (1953), the Technical Assistance Service for French Muslims of Algeria (1958), and later simply the Technical Assistance Service (1962–78)—belied the general continuity of the police fixation on North Africans as a dangerous population that had to be uniquely handled. This latter fact is a defining imperative of imperial ideology: Register difference and then govern people differently based on the difference you just produced.

In the archives, the records of the Technical Assistance Service, the last name of the North African Brigade, trail off with no files on its official dissolution. If you were merely to listen to official pronouncements from the French state, you would probably never know such a thing had existed. But forgetting does not make the past go away. Nor does it erase the corrosive effects of the past on the present. It only makes those effects harder to identify and root out. In the same way, the police force that killed Nahel Merzouk had never eliminated racism. It had merely stopped giving rhetorical approval to openly racialized policing while continuing to integrate the racist practices and ideologies that have always defined what it means to police Paris.

The legacy of racist imperialism casts long shadows on institutions, habits of mind, and, critically, spaces. The North African Brigade produced maps to identify where North Africans lived in and around Paris. This racial coding of the city and its immediate environs racialized urban space. Neighborhoods like La Goutte d’Or in the 18th arrondissement, Belleville in the 20th arrondissement, and the northern suburb of Saint-Denis became focal points of police surveillance, identity checks, and raids. And since the 1940s, police have trained their sights on Nanterre. Thus, it is shocking but not surprising that Merzouk was killed by the police in Nanterre for the act of driving away. This was a racialized person in a racialized space in the police imagination, and the police responded as so many racist police forces do around the world.

France is not more exempt from racism than other countries. It is simply more willfully blind. Until the French authorities discard their head-in-the-sand approach to race in French society, this police violence will grind on and will be met with protest and counter-violence.

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