Justice for Theo: Who can protect us from the police?

The violent police assault on Theo is yet another example of the systemic police brutality in France’s suburbs.

Riots in Bobigny near Paris
A man holds a banner reading 'Justice for everyone' in Bobigny, Paris, after attending a protest in support of Theo [EPA/Yoan Valat]

For more than a week, France has been rocked by tensions that flared up over a police officer allegedly sexually assaulting with a truncheon a 22-year-old black man called Theo in the Parisian suburb of Aulnay-Sous-Bois. This brutal aggression is the latest police violation to dominate headlines in French mainstream media and to trigger protests against police brutality. 

Theo was on his way to visit a friend when the police stopped him to check his ID. A video of Theo’s violent arrest by the police circulated on the internet shows him on the ground against a wall, being beaten by four policemen. In his account to the media, Theo explained how he fell face down as police spat racist insults and sodomised him with a police baton during the brutal arrest. The French police called the violent assault “an accident“.

Theo was subsequently treated in hospital. His case triggered  protests  in several Parisian suburbs which at times turned into riots. Protesters and the police clashed, notably in the suburban town of Bobigny, where cars and buses were burned and stores were ransacked.

At this stage, the French Court of Justice is looking into how to assess the nature of the assault against Theo and whether it should be considered rape or an act of violence. This, according to the court, can be established only by determining the nature of the perpetrator’s intention at the time of the incident.

The French Penal Code reserves a harsh punishment for rape. Article 222-23 of the law states that: “Any act of sexual penetration, whatever its nature, committed against another person, through violence, constraint, threat or surprise, is a rape. Rape is punishable by 15 years of imprisonment.” On February 20, a judge is expected to decide whether the accused policemen will face trial.

A conviction of rape and a jail sentence for the policeman could be considered by Theo’s family a victory and satisfy people’s demands for justice. But if the policeman is acquitted, a repeat of the 2005 riots – triggered by the deaths of two teenagers during a police chase – is highly probable. 

Identity checks and politics

As the incident took place amid a heated electoral campaign, it was not surprising to see presidential candidates capitalising on it to make quick gains. Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, voiced support for the police forces and their “right to defend themselves”. Le Pen refused to condemn the assault on Theo, thus using this horrible abuse to attract voters and stir up racial tensions in suburban neighbourhoods. 

Le Pen’s opportunism is reminiscent of the actions of former President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005, when he was interior minister and presidential candidate. Sarkozy came out in support of the police forces during the riots in Paris suburbs. Two years later, in 2007, Sarkozy was elected president of the republic.

The French police continues to justify its abuses with the lack of human and material resources, as if respecting individuals' human dignity is somehow associated with material resources and/or to the number of policemen on the ground!


The assault on Theo is just another case of abuse of power by the French police against civilians that has become a norm in the past few decades. Such incidents serve as a reminder of the tense relationship between the police and the inhabitants of the suburbs. The regular riots and confrontations that follow every police assault attest to this fact.

One of the most obvious reasons behind this tense relationship is the so-called “delit de facies”, which is a police identity check carried out systematically and repeatedly targeting individuals mainly because of their skin colour (it was in this context that Theo was assaulted). It is a discriminatory and humiliating procedure that is deeply rooted in the collective psyche of the suburban communities – both African and Arab – who for long have complained about it.

During his 2012 election campaign, French President Francois Hollande committed himself to combating the “delit de facies”. However, he has clearly failed to do so; three years into his presidency, five plaintiffs won a cases against the French state for discrimination during police identity checks based on skin colour. 

Moreover, in April 2009, Amnesty International published a report denouncing the French police violations and the failure of the French justice system to put an end to such acts. “Police ill-treatment, racial abuse and excessive use of force continues while procedures for investigating such allegations are still failing to meet the standards required by international law,” the report, titled “France: Police above the law?”, said.

But neither the Amnesty International report, nor the French court rulings, nor the denunciations of the French civil associations, could put an end to the phenomenon. The French police continues to justify its abuses with the lack of human and material resources, as if respecting individuals’ human dignity is somehow associated with material resources and/or to the number of policemen on the ground!

Failure of the state

An acute crisis of confidence has long existed between the inhabitants of suburban neighbourhoods and the French state that almost always manifests its presence in the suburbs only through its police force. Such a dynamic automatically transforms its relationship with French citizens of the suburbs into a purely authoritarian one.

As Amar Henni, a leading youth worker in the district of La Grande Borne on the southern outskirts of Paris, told The Guardian: “the biggest unresolved problem is the relationship between youth and police. The state took a security approach, rather than a social or education response.”

Therefore, in the absence of a genuine policy on integration and urban development in these “sensitive urban zones” (as designated by the French administration) where unemployment is more than twice the national rate, and where schools have a high turnover of often inexperienced teachers, and as long as the successive governments refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for this social failure, without real commitments and changes, unfortunately riots and cars and shops set on fire will continue to occur every time the police commits such horrible acts. 

When state violence becomes systematic and rarely punished, the society falls into a vicious cycle where violence only triggers more violence. The case of Theo is a natural outcome of the failure of the state – on all levels – to combat racism, discrimination and put an end to police violence and abuses against the inhabitants of the suburbs.

Ali Saad is a French sociologist and media critic, focusing on the influence of mass media on society.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.