Writer and editor

'France sees itself as a white country'

Added on by Anealla Safdar.

Paris, France - In March, police killed Shaoyo Liu, a 56-year-old Chinese immigrant, at his home in the 19th arrondissement in Paris during a raid.

The officer who fired the fatal shot said he was acting in self-defence, claiming that the father-of-five wounded a policeman with a "bladed weapon" - an account his teenage daughter, who witnessed the killing, denies.

The family lawyer, Calvin Job, said Liu was preparing his children's dinner and was cutting fish with scissors. An investigation is ongoing.

"Ten to 15 people die every year from police brutality. They [police] are never punished," says Rokhaya Diallo, an author, film director, journalist and activist, as she sips on a hot chocolate in a cafe one kilometre from where Liu was murdered.

"I think here, there is denial. If you read the newspapers here, you have very good coverage of police brutality in the US. You know the victims' names. But of events here, you won't read anything. Even when these national stories are covered, the victim's race is not mentioned."

Diallo spends her days fighting for racial equality and dissecting the sensitivities of French society and politics, from racism and secularism to the decline of the left.

Al Jazeera spoke to Diallo following the recent presidential election, which was won by Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old centrist who beat his far-right rival Marine Le Pen with more than 65 percent of the vote.

Al Jazeera: Shortly after the election result, you tweeted that there was "no cause for celebration". What did you mean by that?

Diallo: Marine Le Pen got 10.6 million voters. In 2002, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen - who also reached the second round - got 5.5 million. She was able to make the Front National (NF) mainstream and settle it into the French political landscape.

Yes, she's lost - we have avoided the worst option. But I'm afraid of the way her ideas will spread further across other parties. Political parties have been adopting far-right ideas to appease such voters for decades.

Many have tried to send signals to Le Pen's supporters by, for example, supporting certain policies that were Islamophobic, or those that favour of [excessive] law and order such as the state of emergency. That's something the NF would have backed if it was in power.

The state of emergency was meant to last 12 days. It's been one and a half years. For a democratic country, it's very concerning. We are being ushered to a police state. None of the candidates said what they would do with that. Macron said it was not the best solution, he hasn't said whether he will stop it.

The state of emergency gives police exceptional powers: home arrests, more searches, they can seize data from computers - all without authorisation from judges.

Thousands of people, mostly Muslims, have been searched, and there has not been any results. Experts of terrorism say this is not an effective way to stop terrorism. It's just a signal to reassure people that [the state] is acting, but it has no effect.

Al Jazeera: Some people would say the state of emergency is a small sacrifice to pay for security ...

Diallo: We should not give up our basic human rights. Many people have accepted the fact they are not treated as citizens, especially Muslim and black people. A lot of young people are used to being stopped and frisked, they don't even consider whether it is legal or not. They should not be searched in this way. Most have not done anything wrong.

It only affects one part of the population. The other does not see it.

However, the state of emergency was used during COP21 in November 2015 to arrest ecologist activists. Also, last year, there were protests against a labour law. Many people and activists were denied the right to protest. The state of emergency has obviously been extended and used for other purposes.

Al Jazeera: How did you personally feel the moment Macron was announced as the next French president?

Diallo: I was relieved it was not Le Pen but not satisfied because Macron supports a neoliberal agenda. He will probably damage the French social model. Le Pen supporters who are in fragile situations and facing economic challenges could become poorer under Macron, and have more reason to support her.

He doesn't have a strong agenda on ecology. I have not heard him say anything [useful] on that topic. He has not addressed anything related to discrimination. These issues are interconnected. Minorities are over-represented in the sections of society that face poverty. The effects of climate change can be linked to migration.

Macron is trying to dismantle social laws, the labour laws. He will face many protests on the streets.

Le Pen supporters will not change. They think that we need a change. They say: "The only party that has not been tried is the NF."

Al Jazeera: In her campaign, Le Pen denounced immigration as a menace and rallied against the European Union. She won more than 30 percent of the vote. What does this mean for France, and what is Macron's greatest challenge?

Diallo: To pull people together, there is a deep divide here. To make people in the same country feel as though they share the same destiny. People should not feel like there is one part of the population threatening the other.

We need to reframe the way we think of us as French people. It's not a white Christian country any more and this is something that really needs to be thought about. The narrative should be changed.

Al Jazeera: Although it is illegal for the French state to collect data on ethnicity and race, there are various estimates regarding demographics. Of 67 million people, more than five million are Muslim, some five million are black, and around 500,000 are Jewish. Why is racism still a problem given this diversity?

Diallo: It comes from the country's history. France was a slave-trading colonial power. Many French people here now are the kids of those from French departments of overseas territories, such as the Caribbean, people whose ancestors were slaves. But they really inherited the status of their ancestors. Today, we still have colonial policies.

The state of emergency was created during the war in Algeria in 1955 to prevent activists fighting for Algerian independence gathering on French soil. It [was] used in New Caledonia, a French territory, and during the uprising in 2005 that took place in the suburbs. (In 2005, protests erupted after the deaths of Arab and black teenagers - Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15 - who were electrocuted after running away from police.) Most of the people uprising then were of colonial descent.

France has a deep problem of institutional racism that has its roots in history. We need to face it and address it really clearly.

Al Jazeera: You have explored the entrenched economic links between France and Africa. How was the continent involved in the election?

Diallo: During the 1980s, several dictators in Africa were supporting candidates with cash money. They were coming here with full suitcases of money.

Still today, Africa is really part of financing the campaigns.

There are still French interests in Africa. French commodities companies such as Areva and Total are still all there. The French army is still in countries in Africa, even if those countries are supposed to be independent. 

The currency in former French colonies is named the CFA Franc - it's aligned with the euro. They don't have their own money.

Al Jazeera: In February when Macron visited Algeria, he condemned France's colonial past, calling it "a crime against humanity", a comment that upset the far-right. Was Macron's speech a positive development?

Diallo: It was a good thing to say colonisation was a crime against humanity. It was really symbolic and interesting to see a French politician recognising the fact that in France's history, it really denied human rights while invading Algeria.

Al Jazeera: From immigrants who became citizens decades ago, to citizens born in France whose parents or grandparents have roots in other countries, being universally recognised as French seems to be a challenge. Why is this?

Diallo: The country sees itself as a white country. Everything that is produced as French, in films and television, is white.

I take part in many TV debates and I am always the only minority, mostly the only woman. There is never another minority to take a seat at the table to discuss French issues. There is no political will, or will in the media, to change the image.

Al Jazeera: Many complaints over racism stem from police brutality, of which non-white citizens are often victims. What is the solution to this?

Diallo: There's a simple solution. There are many identity checks here. Police can just stop someone in the streets and check his - it's mostly his - ID, without any reason. When you are black or Arab and young, you are 20 times more likely to be stopped. It's not just in the suburbs.

If you go to Gare du Nord in Paris, for example, you have many young black and Arab men arrested for no reason. If you take the train to go to London or Brussels, you have people who are stopped for no reason. It's during these interactions when violence breaks out.

During the 2012 campaign, I was part of the Stop le Controle au Facies (Stop appearance-based stop and searches) collective.

We demanded a very simple measure. Police would have to give a document to those they stopped, providing their reasons for the search and the time of the interrogation. People who felt harassed would have proof and police would be accountable.

Data could have been produced from this initiative - such as in which areas are police more likely to carry out stop and searches, and which reasons are most often cited.

In the suburbs, some police stop the same person every day, they see them growing up. It's to reconfirm who the boss is.

Al Jazeera: What was the response of government representatives to that initiative?

Diallo: The president in power at that time, Francois Hollande, was in favour of it. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the prime minister, Christiane Taubira, the minister of justice, and Benoit Hamon also supported the measure.

But Manuel Valls, then minister of the interior, was very close to the police. He stopped the measure and nothing happened. He has an Islamophobic vision of secularism. He didn't want to do anything to stop racial profiling. This measure was very simple and costless.

Al Jazeera: What comparisons can you make between police-led racism in the US and France?

Diallo: I think here, there is denial. If you read the newspapers here, you have very good coverage of police brutality in the US. You know the victims' names. But of events here, you won't read anything. Even when these national stories are covered, the victim's race is not mentioned.

You can guess if they are black or Arab because of their names, such as Adama Traore (who died in police custody in July 2016). In the case of Theo (who was beaten raped by an officer with a baton in February), his photograph was published. But you never see in writing: "A white police officer has killed a black man".

Al Jazeera: Why not?

Diallo: Because we're "colour-blind". We're supposed to all be French. It's taboo to mention people's races ... but thanks to social media, activists are able to publicise the victims' names.

Al Jazeera: Are minorities under-represented in the media?

Diallo: Yes, they are. The press is so white in all the big newspapers.

But La Liberation has made an effort to hire new journalists from diverse backgrounds, and there are new voices emerging thanks to social media. And the Bondy Blog, for instance, is very good. (Bondy Blog is an online news website with voices from the suburbs).

Al Jazeera: If Macron was sitting in front of you, what would you advise him to do about police brutality?

Diallo: I would say he has to address institutional racism and tell him that the state is a part of the problem. He really needs to meet people involved in the issue and adopt policies that would stop it.

There is part of the population that does not feel French because they are mistreated and not respected.

We have families that have lost relatives, brothers, kids, because of police brutality. It's very urgent to address this. It's one of the reason people in the suburbs do not vote. 

Published on Al Jazeera on 13th May, 2017