The French police’s brutal physical and sexual assault of a young black man has sparked a stream of protests and uprisings across the nation. Coming just months before the presidential elections, the political consequences of the assault could prove crucial. While activists have planned a national march against police racism for March 19, the far-right National Front (FN) hopes to use the attack to mobilize more votes.
On February 2, four police officers stopped Théo Luhaka, a youth worker, in his home suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois in northern Paris. Hours later, he was admitted to the hospital for emergency surgery. The officers had beat him, kicked him, allegedly spat on him, and racially abused him. One of the officers had penetrated his anus with an expandable police baton, tearing a four-inch gash in his rectum. His doctor declared him unfit to work for sixty days.
All four officers have been charged with aggravated assault and one of them with rape. Despite video evidence and Luhaka’s scarred body, each denies any wrongdoing.
The police force has happily defended its staff. Spokespeople dismissed assertions of institutional racism, deeming the term “bamboula” — a racially offensive word Luhaka says the officers called him — “basically acceptable,” even “affectionate.” Meanwhile, an internal investigation concluded that the anal penetration did not constitute rape because of its “unintentional character.” Luhaka’s trousers, the report claimed, “slipped down on their own.”
These attempts to downplay the attack have only inflamed public anger. Eleven police officers were injured on February 25 in Nantes, during an anti-FN demonstration. On February 23, students in Paris barricaded their schools with rolling trashcans before clashing with police in La Place de la Nation. Hundreds have been arrested.
For many, Luhaka’s case epitomizes the inequality, injustice, and racism in French society. The story quickly went viral, and #JusticepourTheo trended on Twitter. Celebrities have spoken out at award ceremonies; banners of support have been unfurled in German football stadiums. Luhaka has received a flood of letters and gifts. President François Hollande even visited him in the hospital.
For the FN, Luhaka’s case means something else entirely: it epitomizes France’s growing disorder and decay. Where others sympathized with Luhaka, the party and their backers immediately and unwaveringly supported the police. This goes beyond the typical affinity between nationalist movements and the police: the FN saw the rising civil unrest as a perfect political opportunity.
To the hashtag #JusticepourTheo, the FN responded with a hashtag of their own: #JeSoutiensLaPolice (“I back the police”). They launched an online petition denouncing violence against the police. Marine Le Pen, the FN’s presidential candidate, derided Hollande for “rushing to [Luhaka’s] bedside.”
She claims France is verging on a “civil war,” “dancing on top of a volcano.” And the more civil unrest, the truer these apocalyptic predictions appear. Each outbreak makes it easier for her to present herself as France’s savior — the only politician strong and ruthless enough to restore order to the Republic. The more volatile the situation, in other words, the more reasonable her proposals seem.
Le Pen has called on the government to ban all planned demonstrations against police violence and racism, saying it was “incomprehensible” that Hollande had not already taken such measures. This demand is a win-win for Le Pen. On the one hand, she reiterates her support for the police; on the other, she knows that if Hollande uses France’s ongoing state of emergency to ban the protests, it would escalate tension further.
Meanwhile, the FN continues to strengthen their links to the French police. Their manifesto pledges 15,000 more police officers, 40,000 more prison beds, stricter sentencing, and the automatic deportation of foreign offenders. The FN may have ditched their longstanding pledge to bring back the death penalty, but they’ve replaced it with a promise to make life sentences “real” (though Le Pen hasn’t outlined what that would entail).
Already, over half the police force supports the FN. According to a recent study from the Institute for Political Sciences, the FN received 51.5 percent of the police vote during the 2015 regional elections, up from 30 percent in 2012. In 2016, the FN won 57 percent of the police vote. The current climate will likely push this number even higher.
Somewhat surreally, French police officers see themselves as the victims. They commit violence with impunity, but they feel underappreciated, under-protected, and, with the state of emergency never-ending, overworked.
The current government has sought to soften their dissatisfaction, recently introducing a new law that strengthens their right to self-defense and increases the penalties for insulting police officers. But it is the FN who really tells them what they want to hear.
What is lost in the FN’s narrative, however, is that the difficult/hostile “working conditions” of the police are also the even more difficult/hostile living conditions — “home” — for millions of French citizens. France has over seven hundred “sensitive urban zones,” mostly located in the banlieues. Luhaka’s suburb, Aulnay-sous-boi, is one of them, where unemployment is over twice the national rate, three-quarters of the population live in subsidized housing, and 36 percent live below the poverty line — three times the national average.
These are the true “left-behind” of French society — the left-behind and forever-ignored. They have no FN to speak for them.
Marine Le Pen says, “I feel each suffering of the French people as if it was my own.” But she clearly doesn’t mean the 4.4 million people who live in these deprived areas. In fact, she appears to actively resent them. When frustration boils over into violence and vandalism, Le Pen complains, “How much does all this cost? Because it is the French who pay,” as if the residents don’t count as French. It echoes a line from Donald Trump on the campaign trail: “The only important thing is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.”
More than half of the people in the priority zones are of foreign origin, particularly Algeria, Morocco, and sub-Saharan Africa. They live in a world of racism and injustice. A recent report found that police stop young men they perceive as African or Middle Eastern twenty times more often than any other group. The police regularly face accusations of excessive force. Since Luhaka’s case, another young black man accused the same officer of rape. In this context, the violence that at times erupts should come as no surprise.
When it does, Le Pen and her cronies don’t want to address its underlying causes: they are all too happy to exploit the unrest.
In October 2016, a petrol bomb attack on a police car in southern Paris seriously injured two police officers, leaving one of them with life-threatening burns. The police responded with ten days of nightly protests and demonstrations. With sirens blaring and lights flashing, hundreds of officers drove their vehicles down the Champs-Elysées demanding more protection and resources; thousands more marched the streets singing the notoriously jingoistic “La Marseillaise.”
During these protests, some reports indicated that the FN had infiltrated the demonstrations with their own militant members, stoking anger against “the establishment” from within. The FN denies these accusations. Le Pen’s right-hand man, Florian Philpott, tweeted that there was no influence, “only an unflinching support for a police force against a power that obviously hates it.” But evidence strongly suggests the party did more than offer solidarity.
It would not be the first time the FN and their activists deployed such tactics. Across two nights in April 2015, Adrien Desport, a former FN parliamentary candidate and communications officer, and three accomplices set a dozen vehicles on fire. Days later, he published an open letter to local residents condemning the “unknown” criminals who committed the arson and emphasizing the need to come down on them with a force only the FN could muster. The attacks justified the party’s strict policies, he said, and he commiserated with the victims. Desport is now serving a three-year prison sentence.
His actions perfectly capture the FN’s paradoxical — but entirely strategic — relationship to law and order: sow the seeds of chaos in order to make their sensationalist rhetoric appear more sensible. The FN wants to save France, and they’ll set the house on fire to do so. With Le Pen’s lead in the polls continuing to grow, France could look very different by the time Desport is released.