Years before France erupted in anger over the police killing of a teenager during a traffic stop, the infamous case of Théo Luhaka took place.
Mr. Luhaka, a 22-year-old black soccer player, was walking through a known drug-dealing zone in his housing project in a Paris suburb in 2017 when the police came in to do identity checks.
Mr. Luhaka was wrestled to the ground by three police officers, who hit him several times and sprayed tear gas in his face. When it was over, he was bleeding from a four-inch tear in his rectum, caused by one of the officers’ expandable batons.
Mr. Luhaka’s housing project, and others around Paris, erupted in fury. He was seen as a symbol of what activists have denounced for years: discriminatory police force that violently targets minority youth, especially in poor areas of France.
And there was a feeling that this time something would change. President François Hollande visited Mr. Luhaka in the hospital. Emmanuel Macron, then a presidential candidate in an election he would win months later, promised to transform the country’s centralized police system into one more tailored to neighborhoods, so that police officers could recognize locals and “rebuild trust.”
That never happened. Instead, the relationship between the country’s minority populations and its heavy police force has worsened, many experts say, as evident in the tumultuous aftermath of the late June killing of Nahel Merzouk, 17, a French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent.
After multiple violent, publicized encounters involving the police, a pattern emerged: Each episode led to an outburst of outrage and demands for change, followed by pushback from increasingly powerful police unions and government firings.
“It’s a repeated cycle, unfortunately,” said Lanna Hollo, a human rights lawyer in Paris who has worked on police issues for 15 years. “What characterizes France is denial. There is total denial that there is a structural, systemic problem in the police.”
Calls to overhaul the police go back at least four decades to when thousands of young people of color marched for months in 1983 from Marseille to Paris, more than 400 miles, after an officer shot a young community leader of Algerian descent.
Chanting slogans like “the hunt is over,” the protesters demanded changes to police practices that never came. The number of fatal encounters continued to climb.
France is one of the few Western democracies that has a centralized, national police force that answers directly to the interior minister, often referred to as “France’s top policeman.” Its 150,000 members are organized in a top-down structure, with a reputation for brutal coercion methods.
“In France, the police are increasingly at the service of the government, not the citizens,” said Christian Mouhanna, a French sociologist who studies the police.
In the late 1990s, the French government tried to introduce community policing.
The goal was to “regain a foothold in the suburbs by means other than repression” and build a relationship with locals to prevent crime, said Yves Lefebvre, a police union leader, who recalled organizing soccer games between residents and officers.
But the new approach was scrapped after just a few years. “Organizing a rugby game for the young people in a neighborhood is good, but it is not the main mission of the police,” Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior of France, said in 2003. “The main mission of the police? Investigations, arrests and the fight against crime.”
Mr Sarkozy then introduced a “politics of numbers”, with officers expected to make a certain number of arrests.
But they also fueled demands for tougher and tougher policing.
“The analysis of the police and the interior minister was that if the police had been larger in number, more mobile and better armed, there would not have been riots,” said Sebastian Roché, a police expert at the National Center for Scientific Research of the country
Since then, France has passed new laws strengthening penalties and expanding police powers almost every year. It extended the use of certain weapons that fire rubber bullets the size of golf balls, which have caused dozens of injuries and are banned in most European countries.
Fabien Jobard, a political scientist specializing in the police, said that this “legislative inflation” was partly aimed at further protecting the police and limiting their responsibility.
“It seems that one of the most important jobs of the police is to protect the police,” he said.
“They are the backwards version of community policing,” Ms Hollo said.
Éric Henry, the spokesman for Alliance, a major French police union, denied that identity checks were carried out in a discriminatory manner and said officers were sticking to a legal framework that allows checks on people suspected of criminal activity.
Mr Henry said the deterioration of relations between the police and suburban residents stemmed from an increase in crime and justice not being tough enough. “We must reassert the authority of the state,” he said, calling for the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for those who assault officers. French authorities said that 800 police officers were injured in the recent riots.
In Mr. Luhaka’s case, the aftermath of his violent arrest followed a well-worn French playbook. Young people from the neighborhood in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a suburb 30 minutes northeast of Paris, protested by burning cars. His neighbors wore T-shirts with “Justice for Théo” and organized a march.
The suburb’s mayor, Bruno Beschizza, a former police officer and union spokesman, said he was shocked and called for building trust between the police and residents. A community group held open discussions and demanded regular sporting events with locals and officers and an end to arrest quotas, among other things.
“Nothing happened,” said Hadama Traoré, a local activist who defined himself as a revolutionary and led the meetings. He was later convicted of threatening the mayor.
Instead, the municipal police force grew exponentially, becoming the largest in the area, with 84 officers – four times that of the nearby, more populated Aubervilliers.
Traditionally, the municipal police play an administrative role, handing out parking tickets and traffic fines. In many cities, like Paris, they are unarmed. But in Aulnay-sous-Bois, they are equipped with 9-millimeter guns, tasers and the weapons that fire rubber bullets the size of golf balls.
During the recent riots, more than 100 masked people attacked the municipal police station with fireworks and firebombs. CCTV cameras captured municipal police officers fighting them with shields and rubber bullets.
Mr. Beschizza said he considers the municipal officers who answer to him as mayor to be community police who often patrol on foot, know families and young people, and are instructed to conduct identity checks “with discretion.”
“I refuse to say that there is systemic racism in policing because today, there are many different police officers who themselves come from their neighborhoods,” Mr. Beschizza said from City Hall, where the gates and doors remained barred by huge protective concrete blocks. .
The federal authorities have also long rejected allegations of systemic racism within the police, calling them “completely baseless.”
But while the Home Office regularly publishes crime statistics, it has repeatedly refused to quantify police checks, let alone break them down by the racial origins of those they stop, which is prohibited in France, a country that considers itself colorblind.
“At the same time, because we know very little about identity checks, we know a lot about how many cars were burned every night, how many arrests were made, how many public buildings were vandalized,” said Magda Boutros, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle who specializes in policing in France.
The result, she said, was a narrative portraying the largely white police force “as a vital tool for controlling out-of-control youth” in the poor suburbs “while not providing the tools that others might use to question police practices.”
The few times the government has tried to address allegations of racist policing, it has faced an even bigger obstacle: the police unions.
In recent years, during clashes with the Yellow Vest movement — a labor uprising — as well as more recent protests against changes to France’s pension plan, the French government has increasingly relied on the police to control crowds.
That reliance has enabled police unions — a powerful political force elected by nearly 80 percent of all police officers — to secure regular pay increases and, more pointedly, to block any change that would limit police powers, experts say.
In 2020, the unions showed the full extent of their power. As outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in the United States spread to France, Christophe Castaner, then the interior minister, proposed disciplinary action against officers suspected of racism.
In response, unions staged a protest on the Champs-Élysées and called on officers to throw down handcuffs in front of police stations across France. “The police are not racist,” said Fabien Vanhemelryck, the leader of the Alliance police union. “We’re tired of hearing that.”
Under pressure, Mr. Castaner met with union leaders, including Mr. Lefebvre, who announced that the interior minister had lost the trust of the police and could no longer represent them. A month later, Mr. Castaner was replaced.
“The president knows that an interior minister who has all the police unions against him cannot stand,” said Mr Lefebvre, the leader of France’s second most powerful police union alliance.
Last month, after the police shooting of Mr. Merzouk, Alliance and another police union announced that they were at war with the rioters, whom they thought were “fiends” and “wild hordes.”
Since Mr. Luhaka, now 28, had his own encounter with the police, his injury is determined to be permanent, and he has been unable to work.
While the officers involved in his arrest received no internal disciplinary sanctions, three of them face criminal charges in a case scheduled for court in January – nearly seven years later.
“This trial is very important symbolically,” said Eléonore Luhaka, Mr Luhaka’s eldest sister. “If the trial is favorable, then it will free many more people to speak. It will send a message that justice can also be found in poor neighborhoods.”
Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reports from Paris and Aulnay-sous-Bois.