On the afternoon of July 19, Adama Traoré was riding his bike through the center of Beaumont-sur-Oise, a picturesque hillside town north of Paris. The day had been uncommonly hot, more than 90 degrees. Even on the narrow, winding streets of Beaumont, the shade lay in narrow ribbons along the storefronts of the bakeries, groceries, pharmacies, and computer repair shops; restaurants were just opening back up after a midday siesta.
It was Adama’s 24th birthday. He was working construction and had saved up the money for a celebratory trip south that weekend. Gliding into the cobblestone plaza by the public library, he joined his older brother Bagui at the wicker chairs and marble-topped tables of the Balto, a corner bar where a coffee costs a euro and change.
Two plainclothes police approached. They were looking for Bagui in connection with an extortion case. The elder Traoré handed over his ID. But Adama didn’t have his on him. He had recently spent several months in jail, on charges of hitting a man, and he was not planning on going back. So he fled.
Two hours later, he lay dead in the courtyard of a police station. The cause of death was later found to be asphyxiation.
What happened in between, and what has happened since, has been the focus of intense scrutiny in France for the past six months. Thousands of people have marched peacefully in major cities; dozens of cars have been set on fire in riotous demonstrations. The local prosecutor misrepresented Adama Traoré’s cause of death. The local tribunal opened a posthumous investigation against the dead man for resisting arrest. The mayor of Beaumont declared she would sue Traoré’s older sister, Assa Traoré, for defamation. And after a confrontation with police over a November city council meeting, two of Adama’s brothers, Bagui and Youssouf Traoré, were sentenced to eight and three months in prison, respectively, for threats and violence toward officers.
About 15 people a year die at the hands of the French police (that those numbers are minuscule by American standards perhaps says more about us). Police brutality is a common complaint, and observers say it is getting worse. “It’s totally structural, systemic,” said the sociologist and activist Mathieu Rigouste, who has written a book on police violence. “What’s changed [with the Traoré case] is that there is a great, coordinated resistance in the neighborhoods and cities around France.” Adama Traoré has become a cause. His name is intoned in marches, printed on T-shirts, and displayed prominently in rap music videos. The investigative magazine Mediapart selected his sister Assa to give its year-end “presidential address,” which she devoted to the topic of police violence.
When crowds thronged the streets of Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse chanting “Justice for Adama,” they were also voicing a long-running grievance: that France’s black and Arab communities suffer disproportionately at the hands of the police and struggle for fair treatment before the law. A 2009 study reported, for example, that “individuals identified as black or North African” were six to eight times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. In agitating for reform, many French see their efforts in parallel to America’s Black Lives Matter movement, the chance for a “Ferguson-sur-Seine,” as one civil rights leader put it to me. But defining the crisis in terms of color has been harder to do in France than it has been in the U.S. Officially, France does not talk about race. Culturally, it remains nearly as reluctant to do so.
Nevertheless, l’affaire Adama Traoré has become another brick in the wall of resentment between the French political establishment and the country’s exasperated minority populations, composed largely of African immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren. “Adama has become a symbol,” Assa told me. “He has become history.” His story and its aftermath simultaneously affirm minorities’ suspicions about the fairness of the French justice system and French conservatives’ doubts about the respect for the rule of law in immigrant communities.
France is a paradox. It is often thought, wrongly, that recent immigrants are a new tripwire for the singular concept of French citizenship. Instead, much like the United States, France has successfully integrated dozens of different subcultures. The rural French poor, many of whom spoke regional dialects and did not learn French until the 20th century, were once considered a different race. At one point in the 1930s France had more immigrants per capita than any other country in the world. It has the world’s third-largest Jewish population after the U.S. and Israel, and as a percentage, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
But there is now a widespread sense that the civic machinery that turned Bretons, Savoyards, and Algerian Jews into French; integrated generations of Italians, Poles, and Portuguese; and elected the son of a Hungarian immigrant president has failed with postwar immigrants from Algeria and the French colonies. “We’ve got to reduce immigration to its strict minimum,” François Fillon, the current favorite in France’s upcoming presidential election, said in November. “Our country is not a sum of communities, it is an identity.” Civic life is haunted by the possibility, or perhaps the sound, of a France babelisée.
The potential explanations for this broken system are myriad: Deindustrialization eliminated many of the jobs that gave earlier generations of immigrants livelihoods and political identities. Isolated enclaves of public housing in the banlieues leave the poor far from jobs and transportation. Newer immigrants are insufficiently devoted to the traditions of French culture. Displays of Islamic identity clash with the French emphasis on secularism in public life and institutions, a crowning achievement of the French left; alienation of immigrants from the institutions of the republic (especially the police) bolsters the role of the mosque. The system does not feel fair. Police brutality goes unpunished. A promise to allow immigrants to vote in local elections, first made by François Mitterrand during his winning presidential campaign in 1981, has gone unrealized, though EU immigrants have been able to do so since 1992. A Polish immigrant who has lived in France for three years can vote in local elections; an Algerian immigrant who has lived there for 20 years cannot.
Whatever the explanation, the current xenophobic tenor of public discourse runs the entire political spectrum, from the right (Fillon) to the Socialist ex–prime minister Manuel Valls, who has said that Islamists should be stripped of French citizenship. It is epitomized by the steady rise of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who blurs the lines between immigration, Islamism, and terrorism. The terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice have left France under a lasting state of emergency, and the center of political gravity has shifted sharply to the right.
How this relates to the death of a black Muslim Frenchman is complicated. The anger over l’affaire Adama Traoré has led to civil unrest, calls for checks on police power, and a renewed politics of racial identity, at a time when most of the country has little appetite for any of that. No major political figure has commented on the case save Bernard Cazeneuve, then the interior minister, who in November called for calm and pledged support for the mayor of Beaumont amid a “climate of violence.”
One aspect of Cazeneuve’s comments stuck with Assa Traoré: that Cazeneuve, who has since been promoted to prime minister, would not say her brother’s name. If Paris looks warily on the burned frames of Renaults in suburban streets, the feeling among Adama’s friends and family—and, we may surmise, a larger ethnic and geographical quotient of France—is one of desperation:
Why won’t anyone in power acknowledge the case of a 24-year-old who died in the courtyard of a police station?
I went to meet Assa Traoré at her apartment in the suburbs of Paris a few weeks before Christmas. Until her brother’s death, she was a mother of three and a special education teacher. Now she is also the voice of the “Justice Pour Adama” movement, fielding incessant interview requests and managing her own legal battles as well as those of her brothers. Hate mail arrives to the apartment she shares with her partner, letters calling her a “dirty nègre.”
Assa was on a school trip in Croatia when she learned that her brother had died in the gendarmerie. “They let him die like a dog,” she said. “He died with no dignity. And they were right there.”
What has happened in the months since Adama’s death, Assa says, has been just as shocking. “I didn’t think that justice was so vicious. When you’re in trouble, you’re your own defender. If you don’t look for the truth yourself, they won’t help you.”
Here is what police say happened on the afternoon on July 19.
As his brother waited by the café, Adama Traoré ran out toward the main road, chased by two police officers. He was detained and partially handcuffed in a nearby park. He was left alone with one gendarme, who said Traoré then assaulted him and ran. Police later said they found their colleague with “spots of blood on his shirt.” A radio call went out in search of a well-built man of African descent. A witness directed the police toward a building near the town center, and a man on the ground floor indicated that Traoré was hiding in his apartment.
This time, according to official reports obtained by the newspaper Libération, Adama did not resist. He said he was having trouble breathing.
The police cuffed him, searched him, and walked him three or four minutes to the squad car. It was then, they said, that he began to show signs of physical unease. He hung his head in front of him.
The car headed down the hill and across the river to the police station, a 10-minute drive. Inside the gates of the station, Traoré was pulled from the car and laid on the ground, still in handcuffs. He had urinated on himself and couldn’t stand up on his own. He lost consciousness. The cops called the fire department; the firefighters determined he was no longer breathing. An ambulance was summoned. For the next hour, EMTs tried to revive him. Shortly after 7 p.m., they stopped CPR and declared Adama Traoré deceased.
Four nights of unrest followed in Beaumont, as demonstrators lit cars on fire. During the day, protesters converged. Thousands marched peacefully in the streets of Beaumont that Friday, joined by sister protests in other French cities. A July protest planned for Paris was cut off by security forces outside the Gare du Nord train station. But the movement has retained momentum: In November, roughly 1,000 people gathered in Paris to march in support of justice for Traoré. Hundreds marched in Lyon in January; a concert in Paris will take place on Thursday.
That anger over Traoré’s death continues to bring people to the streets is due to the widespread sense that the government response has been somewhere between fumbling and underhanded—and that for once, at last, someone should bear responsibility for the death of a young man at the hands of the police.
Three days after Adama Traoré’s death, the local prosecutor, Yves Jannier, announced the results of the autopsy: Traoré had suffered from a “very serious infection” in several major organs, he told Agence France-Presse. He also said the autopsy revealed a heart condition that could have been the direct cause of death. He reminded reporters that it had been very hot that day.
The family was astonished. Traoré had worked with his hands, ridden a bike, and loved playing soccer. They did not believe he could have died of a pre-existing medical condition. The family refused the body and requested a second autopsy, which was undertaken a couple of days later at the morgue in Paris. It found no evidence of a serious infection or a heart condition, and instead drew a conclusion that had been discernable in the first autopsy report but that Jannier had not articulated: Adama Traoré had suffocated.
Neither autopsy found traces of violence on his body. But one of the family’s lawyers suggested that he had asphyxiated after compression of the thorax sustained during his arrest. A request for a third autopsy was denied.
In verbal statements, the gendarmes claimed that Traoré had been placed in the recovery position immediately upon his arrival at the police station. But in September, a senior firefighter who had responded to the scene told investigators his team found Traoré face down on the ground, hands cuffed behind his back, not breathing. The firefighter told the police to take the handcuffs off; the gendarmes refused. “He’s pretending,” they said, according to the firefighter. “He’s violent.”
For the Traorés, the trouble continued. In August, in a television appearance, Assa had criticized the mayor of Beaumont, Nathalie Groux. Traoré’s family had lived in Beaumont for 30 years, she said, but they hadn’t received so much as a word from the mayor about Adama’s death. “The mayor of Beaumont picked her side, she took the side of the police. Which means the side of police violence.”
In November, Groux announced she would sue Traoré for defamation. (France’s strict libel laws make the country an international destination for defamation suits.) Groux called a city council meeting to request that the city cover her legal fees, up to 10,000 euros, plus 20,000 euros for personal protection.
Dozens of supporters of the Traoré family showed up to the meeting, on a Thursday night in late November but found their way blocked by police with dogs. The gendarmes threw tear gas to disperse the crowd. “We arrived for the session at the city council like we usually do,” said Marlène Herlem, a council member, after the fracas, her eyes red from the gas. “But when we saw that the public was not authorized to access the room, which is normally a right, we refused to begin the session.” The council meeting had to be postponed. Later that night, 60 heavily armed police stormed Boyenval, the neighborhood of Beaumont where the Traoré family lives, on what the journalist Widad Ketfi described as a “punitive expedition.” Video from the scene shows police with shields and billy clubs accosting residents outside their homes.
Five days later, Adama’s brothers Youssouf and Bagui Traoré were arrested on charges of insulting and threatening the police on the evening of the council meeting. Bagui was charged with hitting an officer in the face. Why police waited five days to arrest a man accused of assaulting a cop, Assa says, she doesn’t understand. That night in Boyenval, a dozen young men with masked faces stopped a bus, threw the driver out into the street, and set the bus on fire.
In mid-December, both brothers were found guilty on all counts and sentenced to short prison terms. Bagui, who had been convicted a dozen times of minor offenses, was also banned from Beaumont for two years. The accusation that he had punched a police officer was supported by one eyewitness testimony, from a different cop. (The cop who was hit didn’t see who hit her.) The testimony was enough. The brothers are appealing their sentences; Bagui is doing so from prison. And at the request of the family, Adama Traoré’s case was in October transferred to a court in Paris—a venue, away from the charged atmosphere of Beaumont, that they feel will be more fair.
From a conservative standpoint, the brothers’ arrests and convictions bolstered a critical view of the attitude with which minority youth approach the political process. Resisting arrest, burning cars, and holding unregistered protests all fit into a pattern of lawlessness in dissent. “The truth cannot come out in a climate of violence,” said Cazeneuve afterwards. But the November council meeting was hardly an example of demonstrators trying to disrupt the system. The cause of the confrontation was that the brothers had been barred from attending a meeting ostensibly open to the public; they had approached the republic and found the doors closed.
The parallels between Justice Pour Adama and the Black Lives Matter movement are impossible to ignore. Like Eric Garner, Traoré couldn’t breathe. Like Freddie Gray, his requests for help were ignored. His misdeeds, like those of Michael Brown, have been cited by critics as a kind of counterweight on the scales of justice. (He was innocent of the charges that had put him behind bars earlier, his family insists.) This comparison is not lost on the French, who have closely followed America’s wave of police killings. The week after Traoré’s death, protesters gathered in the center of Paris and chanted “Black Lives Matter” in English. “Black Lives Matter in France, Too,” read a New York Times op-ed.
But racism is a particularly touchy subject in France, where race is not counted in the national census. Many French minorities will tell you that in conflict with a police officer, a boss, or a teacher, accusations of racial bias are considered spurious. Instead, in government reports on civil rights, and even by affected families like the Traorés and their advocates, discrimination is framed as a question of social status and national origin. “I don’t think it was because Adama is black that this happened to him,” said Noémie Saidi-Cottier, the lawyer who represents Assa. “I think it’s not especially the color of his skin but his social origin, unfortunately. Young people from the suburbs in France are often stigmatized.”
In September, in an interview with the left-wing Libération newspaper, Assa sought to distinguish her brother’s case from the anti-racist cause in France. “It’s another battle,” she said. “Maybe there’s a link, I don’t know. But it’s not what I’m fighting. What I want is justice for Adama.” She wanted her brother’s plight to unite people, not divide them. When in December we discussed what she planned say in her address for Mediapart, she did not mention race.
In some ways, Justice Pour Adama has been divorced from the larger, established movements against racism in France. “It has not really been politicized in the public discourse,” explained Cédric Moreau de Bellaing, a professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris who studies police interactions with minorities. “It’s clear that a cause that consists of putting pressure on the evident contradictions in judicial reports, rather than on general denunciations, plays on the resources of moral indignation rather than political principles.”
Despite the movement’s focus on Traoré, there is no separating his story from the plight of his caste: the children of immigrants from the former French colonies. This group is most often described with the term quartiers populaires, which means “working-class neighborhoods”—but which is an evolution from quartiers ouvriers, or “workers’ neighborhoods.” Unemployment rates in the quartiers populaires are among the highest in France.
That geographic designation has emerged to describe the marginalized youth in and around French cities (they are not all in the suburbs), who share looser affiliations around religion (Muslim, but also Christian), race (black and Arab), and national origin (with parents from Algeria, but also from Mali, or Congo, or Cameroon). What they also share is a kind of hybrid Frenchness. They are more French than anything else but live with the sense that they aren’t treated that way.
As in the United States, police brutality is like gasoline to the smoldering fires of unemployment, poverty, and discrimination. At a December forum on police violence in Saint-Denis, a dense and diverse city north of Paris, I met Lofti Benabdelmoumene, a childhood friend of Adama Traoré’s. Benabdelmoumene, who is 28 and of Algerian descent (though his mother, too, was born in France), tied police brutality to a feeling of disenfranchisement from the republic at large. “We grew up here. We were born in French hospitals,” he said. Police brutality is endemic to the quartiers populaires, with little consequence even for beatings captured on video. “It’s hard to have confidence in the system because there’s no equality.” He understood why Traoré would have run.
Distrust in the justice system perpetuates itself. The autopsy reports and contradictory accounts of Adama Traoré’s death strengthen doubts that family members and activists have about cases that seem more cut-and-dry, like that of Abdoulaye Camara. Police killed Camara after firing two dozen shots at him early in the morning of Dec. 16, 2014. Camara was in the midst of stabbing a passer-by on the ground. He left the victim with dozens of scars, and it’s likely that the arrival of the police saved his life. “He cut my nose in two,” the victim later told a reporter. “He ruined my life.” The inspector general of the police found the police were justified in firing, rather than using a dog or a Taser, under the circumstances. But Camara’s family disputes their account, and rallies for the dead man have continued.
Others, like Samir Elyes, one of the older activists at the gathering in Saint-Denis, see these deaths as deeply rooted in French colonial history. It was a failure, he suggested, that the French had resorted to an American slogan, borrowed from an American movement, when there were so many examples of injustice to draw upon here. “It’s not normal that we know more about the Black Panthers than the black movement in France,” he said. He saw police brutality as a continuation of French colonial abuses toward minorities, from Thiaroye, Senegal, to the Battle of Algiers.
Police discrimination is widespread and well-documented. A police officer’s motive for checking someone’s papers is usually instinct, a 2015 report by the French civil rights office found. Young men of color say they are stopped incessantly, and the data back that up. Both Amnesty International and the French civil rights office say that discrimination on the basis of national origin is the subject of most complaints about policing.
In its most recent report, the civil rights office recommended police be required to explain the motivation for stops, to defray concerns about profiling. President François Hollande had pledged during his campaign to fight against discrimination in identity checks. But this summer, the French legislature shelved a proposal 10 years in the making to require police to issue written “receipts” to people who are stopped, a reform intended to counter repeat checks. Cazeneuve, at the time in charge of the national police force, argued it was “out of the question” to cast “suspicion” on the police given the state of emergency France had declared after the 2015 terror attacks in Paris.
The justice system offers little reprieve for victims of discrimination. As far back as 2005, Amnesty noted a “pattern of de facto impunity” for law enforcement in France. The organization was particularly concerned with what it called “retaliatory use” of the charges of outrage (insulting an officer), rebellion (resisting an officer), and defamation—the three charges that have been brought against Assa, Youssouf, and Bagui Traoré. The inspector general of the national police noted in 2005 that officials resort “perhaps too systematically to allegations of outrage and rebellion.”
“On each case [of police brutality], it’s impossible to prove the racial intention,” observed Louis-Georges Tin, the president of CRAN, a group that represents French of African descent. “On the other hand, on the cases together the disparity is such that there’s clearly a racial problem.” Adama Traoré is just the latest in a long line of Frenchmen with Maghreb and African names who have died after interactions with police.
The seminal moment of confrontation over police, minorities, and integration in France took place in the fall of 2005. On Oct. 27, two teenagers in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-Sous-Bois, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré (no relation to Adama), ran from an identity check. Chased by police, they hid in the enclosure of an electrical transformer and were fatally electrocuted.
Their deaths kicked off three weeks of revolt in major French cities and prompted the first state of emergency in Metropolitan France since the Algerian War in the early 1960s. (The next was put in place after the Paris attacks of November 2015, and remains in effect.) There had been riots in French social housing before, notably outside Lyon during the 1980s—not to mention a mainstream tradition of turbulent political protest that stretches from the liberation of the Bastille to the student revolts of 1968 to the labor marches of 2016. But the fury of 2005, when cars burned in the heart of Paris, prompted an awakening for French elites. It called national attention to the social crisis in the banlieues. When French President Jacques Chirac addressed the nation on television, after days of dithering, he issued a plea for sympathy for the young men of the suburbs. “We are all aware of discrimination,” he said. “How many CVs are thrown in the wastepaper basket just because of the name or the address of the applicant?”
If anything, the situation has deteriorated since then. In 2015, a full decade after the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, a tribunal in Rennes exonerated the two officers of charges of failing to aid persons in need. The decision reinforced the sense in the quartiers populaires that the justice system treated French minorities as second-class citizens. It was little consolation that Olivier Klein, the mayor of Clichy-Sous-Bois, named a local street after the two young men.
Meanwhile, the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice have provoked a concurrent retrenchment in the National Assembly. There is no political initiative to engage with questions of racial discrimination, identity politics, or police brutality. In October, a gang of young men in a suburb of Paris threw a Molotov cocktail at a squad car, leaving a 28-year-old police officer in life-threatening condition. Police staged 10 days of spontaneous demonstrations; the result was a legislative grant of a quarter-billion euros to local and national police and a review of when officers may use lethal force. A poll conducted this spring for the Parisien newspaper found that 82 percent of French had a good opinion of the police. (Though barely more than half thought the police treated people of different backgrounds equally.)
In November, the journalist Idir Hocini noted the differences a decade had made: “At that time, the media basically said that the kids burning cars are definitely poorly raised Frenchmen, but blind with rage and in search of social justice,” he wrote for Bondy Blog, an acclaimed site created in 2005 that focuses on the quartiers populaires. “Eleven years later, if anger has again carried away the quartiers populaires, because the Adama affair is still sinking in, they’ll say these are terrorists.”
Alain Richard, a Socialist senator who represents the department of Val-d’Oise, which contains Beaumont, said that aside from the inadequate early statements of the local prosecutor, who has since been transferred, the system was working as intended. “It’s annoying that justice is slow, but it’s not our job to say justice should go one way or the other,” he told me. (Richard is also, coincidentally, a distant relative of mine—though we had never met before I called him for this story.) He condemned the unrest. “It’s a strong phenomenon in French society, you have groups—mostly minorities—who, when there’s a casualty, destroy public places, set buses on fire,” Richard said. “Citizens of all social categories are against that. If they had had a peaceful protest, the majority of the population is with them.”
Still, it’s clear that one effect of those protests is to make France pay attention. A burning car is the quartiers populaires’ version of a well-placed phone call, eliciting coverage on television and in the major daily newspapers. “It’s because the youths did mobilize, provoked unrest, and created images that this is happening,” said Tin, the head of CRAN, of the national attention to the case. “Journalists say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And they say: ‘Because otherwise you wouldn’t come.’”
Beaumont is not, as Richard pointed out to me, a postwar ghetto cut off from transportation and jobs. It’s a town of 10,000 people with a looming 17th-century church and the remnants of an old fort, perched on the banks of the Oise. The express train to Paris, which leaves from Persan, across the Oise, takes 35 minutes and costs $8. To my eyes, at least, the town was surprisingly diverse: groups of mixed-race schoolchildren giggled in the afternoon streets. The opposition counselor who joined the protesters after the infamous aborted city council meeting, Marlène Herlem, is also the leader of the local historical association. In November, Groux, the mayor, was widely criticized for sharing a Facebook status imploring “native-born citizens” to take up arms and defend the police. Two weeks later, she defended herself by saying she had mixed-race children. (In December, she called Assa Traoré to propose an informal meeting; her offer was rejected.) The lawyer for the police who arrested Adama Traoré told me that “several” of the officers who arrested him are minorities. (Their names have not been released.) Everyone is adamant that in a town the size of Beaumont, the police and the Traoré brothers—who had had their run-ins with the law—would have known each other.
It’s clear that Beaumont isn’t an isolated, downtrodden community at the edge of society. It looks a lot like the rest of France. And so the crisis that began here in July—of fairness, of Frenchness, of faith in the rule of law—feels like less a problem with the cités, those isolated enclaves of despair, than one with France itself.
Photography by Oscar B. Castillo made possible with the support of the Magnum Foundation.
Opening Image: Abdourahmane Camara leads a protest demanding justice for his brother Abdoulaye Camara on Dec. 17.