From A World to Win News Service

10 Years Later, French Courts Exonerate Police in the Deaths of Two Teenagers

May 25, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


19 May 2015. A World to Win News Service. When two teenagers fleeing from police were electrocuted in an electrical power substation in 2005, youths in the poor working class and heavily immigrant-origin urban suburbs (banlieues) surrounding Paris and other French cities exploded. Now, after nearly a decade of legal maneuvers, on 18 May a court definitively acquitted two police officers accused of failing to act to prevent their deaths, despite uncontested evidence that the police knew they were in mortal danger and could have saved them.

Three youths were returning home after a holiday afternoon football match near a housing estate in the town of Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris when they were approached by a police van. An investigation later brought out that they had committed no crime, but the police chased them anyway. They tried to escape by ducking into an electrical transformer shed. Two of them, Bouna Traoré, 15, and Zyed Benna, 17, were killed by a charge of tens of thousands of bolts. Their friend, 17-year-old Muhittin Altun, was severely burned.

For many people the deaths of Bouna and Zyed were two outrageous deaths too many and a concentration of the oppression and misery they face every day. A furious outpouring of mainly banlieue youths followed the electrocutions. The police descended on the suburbs night after night, with arrests, tear gas and beatings. Still, the youths in these areas continued to resist. The state issued the first nationwide state of emergency since the end of the Algerian war in 1962. Demonstrations were banned, and with only a few exceptions political organisations and public figures remained passive.

The state waited two years before announcing that it would investigate the police most directly responsible for the deaths of Bouna and Zyed. People were told the familiar refrain, to put their faith in the judicial system. While no one was ever charged with murder or manslaughter, two officers were finally charged with "failure to aid a person in danger."

The investigation revealed the police had reason to know that the three teenagers were near the EDF power substation and could have gone inside. In a recorded conversation with his dispatcher over the radio, one of the officers who had chased them said, "If they've gone into the EDF site, I don't give them much chance." (Guardian, 18 May 2015) Yet he failed to try to find and warn them, or do anything to help them. The dispatcher failed to call the electricity company to have the current shut off. They did not even call the emergency medical services. Bouna and Zyed are said to have died a half an hour after the police left the area.

For ten years the justice system stalled or found a way to justify the cops. When they were finally brought to trial, the prosecutor, who asked for the charges against them to be dropped, argued that if the police had known of the danger, they would surely have acted to protect the youths. The panel of judges accepted this logic, despite the recorded evidence of the conversation between the two implicated police, and ruled that the accused had no reason to be "certain of the imminent danger" facing the youths. (Le Monde, 18 May 2015) As legal observers pointed out, this decision was not based on facts or the law but explicitly political. Criminal charges and the civil suit brought by the families of the victims were dropped. No further appeal is possible.

This verdict has emboldened reactionaries in France to redouble their attacks on the youths from the banlieues. Zyed and Bouna are being called "thugs" and held responsible for cars burned after their death. The victims' families, still grieving their loss ten years later, have been told that they are responsible for not raising their children with sufficient respect for the police and the laws of the republic. The verdict is being used to hammer the message that the rebellion in 2005 was unjustified.

Instead, the police are being portrayed as victims because they had to stand trial on minor charges. While the openly racist National Front (FN) has hailed the court decision, saying that "Justice has finally been done in France," the Justice Minister of the governing Socialist Party (PS), Christiane Taubira, a black woman who had been targeted by outrageous racist insults, took only a slightly more nuanced stand, calling on everyone to "respect the decisions of the justice system." Meanwhile, many people are saying that the verdict showed the fundamental injustice of the "justice system" and France itself.

After the verdict was read, a large and angry rally was held outside the courthouse in the department where Clichy is located, and there were skirmishes with the police. The anguish and anger at the French court system expressed by the youths' families and friends are being shared by thousands of people on social media, making "ZyedEtBouna" the most followed Twitter hashtag in France.

Several people denounced what they called the "violence" of the judges' decision. One wrote that with its verdict, the "justice system" acted just like the police and, in a way, sentenced Zyed and Bouna to death after the fact, not because of anything they did but because of who they were, their immigrant backgrounds and banlieue postal code that amounts to a life sentence for millions of youths. Others tweeted on the theme that for the police, the "imminent danger" is the banlieue youths themselves, and an electrical transformer is as good as any other weapon to kill them.

While the official "far left" opposition (the Left Front led by Jean-Luc Melenchon who took the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo staff by Islamic fundamentalists last January as an occasion to literally shake hands with the militarized police usually used against demonstrators) is trying to rival the far right in defending the police in the face of the outrage following the verdict (see his Twitter statement), many youths, from immigrant backgrounds and of all nationalities, and others, are calling the harassment, abuses and killings carried out against banlieue youths a dividing line. At the same time, although religion played very little role in the 2005 upheaval, reactionaries across much of the political spectrum are trying to connect this rage against the police with Islamic fundamentalism, which only feeds that current.

The conditions in France's suburbs that fuelled the 2005 rebellion after Zyed and Bouna were electrocuted, and the authorities' continuing difficulties in sweeping their deaths under the rug, remain a source of explosive potential.


A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.


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