| 1.8°C Dublin

Riots protesting police brutality are playing into Le Pen's hands


Police arrest a youth in clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Paris this week. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/Getty

Police arrest a youth in clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Paris this week. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/Getty

Police arrest a youth in clashes between demonstrators and riot police in Paris this week. Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/Getty

The story of the young French man known as Theo L, which has sparked weeks of sometimes violent protest in the suburbs of Paris, begins on February 2. That day, four police officers arrived in the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois where they began stopping youths and demanding to see identity papers.

Tensions grew and Theo, a 22-year-old black community worker with a clean record, intervened to calm the situation. He says he was subsequently raped with a police baton, racially abused and beaten around his genitals. One police officer has been charged with raping Theo and three others have been charged with assault.

The episode - now known in the French media as "l'affaire Theo" - has triggered outrage, particularly in the restive Paris "banlieues" - or suburbs - where many immigrants live. Protests in these neighbourhoods, some of which have spilled over into rock-throwing and car burning, have led to over 240 arrests.

This week hundreds of students blocked the entrances to more than a dozen secondary schools in Paris to highlight Theo's case.

Social media footage of a rally in east Paris showed riot police firing tear gas during a confrontation with hooded youths on the fringes of the demonstration where banners read "Revenge for Theo".

The protests have fanned beyond the capital, with marches taking place around France calling for an end to police brutality and also recalling the death in police custody last summer of a young black man named Adama Traoré outside Paris. Theo has appealed for calm from his hospital bed, where he was visited by French President François Hollande who promised "justice will be done".

But news that an internal police investigation claimed that Theo's injuries, which included a tear to his rectum, were not intentional prompted more anger.

The unrest comes just two months before the first round of the French presidential elections, one of the most unpredictable in recent history. Leader of the far-right Front National Marine Le Pen is expected to win one of the two places in the run-off, with the election now seen primarily as a contest against her. The man who was considered to be her main challenger - Francois Fillon of the right-wing Republican Party - has seen his campaign run into trouble over accusations he arranged for his wife to be paid by the state for jobs critics say were fake.

Aulnay-sous-Bois, where Theo grew up, is one of the troubled suburbs whose denizens are often demonised by Le Pen and the Front National as part of the anti-immigration platform that has helped the once pariah party gain momentum in recent years.

In suburbs like Aulnay-sous-Bois, unemployment can soar up to 27pc compared to the national average of 10pc. Residents complain about police harassment, particularly against black and ethnic minority youth. A study by a government watchdog last year found that across France black youths or youths of Arab origin were seven times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by police.

Daily Digest Newsletter

Get ahead of the day with the morning headlines at 7.30am and Fionnán Sheahan's exclusive take on the day's news every afternoon, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

The resulting discontent can sometimes flare into violence. Aulnay-sous-Bois is one of several suburbs where riots erupted in 2005 after two teenagers who fled police in the nearby area of Clichy-sous-Bois died when they were accidentally electrocuted in the power station where they had hidden. The ensuing unrest prompted then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy to declare a state of emergency.

Evergreen promises to address the grievances of the banlieues have amounted to little. Mr Hollande failed to deliver on his 2012 presidential campaign pledges to reduce unemployment, improve educational facilities and tackle police accountability. In fact, French legislators are mulling new measures that would give greater powers to police. The three main contenders for April's presidential elections differ little in their security-focused approach to the banlieues, instead of tackling the structural factors that have allowed so many communities to fester.

With Ms Le Pen polling well and currently enjoying odds of 28-43pc, the ongoing unrest over the case of Theo is making her opponents uneasy, fearing it could play to her advantage. Blaise Cueco, regional head of advocacy group SOS Racisme, warned in a TV interview: "Each time you burn a car, it's thousands of votes for Marine Le Pen." For her part, Ms Le Pen has repeatedly denounced the protesters as "racaille", or scum, though she distanced herself from a party colleague who used the term to describe Theo himself.

"Racaille" was the word Mr Sarkozy used when he was interior minister in 2005 to refer to the rioters who were then setting the Paris suburbs ablaze. Two years later he was elected president.

Most Watched