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Why George Floyd's Death In Minneapolis Hit A Nerve In France

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The death of George Floyd is reverberating through France. Many people there are drawing a direct comparison between Floyd's death and that of a black Frenchman who died after being pinned down by police in a Paris suburb in 2016. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A week after George Floyd's death, 20,000 Parisians defied coronavirus restrictions and demanded justice for 24-year-old Adama Traore. Traore died in July 2016. His family and a core support group have always said he was asphyxiated when three policemen pinned him to the ground. Now the rest of France thinks they might have a point. Mathieu Zagrodzki is a lecturer on law enforcement at the University of Versailles.

MATHIEU ZAGRODZKI: The George Floyd earthquake really had this tremendous influence on French society. And a lot of people had this sort of, maybe not epiphany, but they realized that, hey, we've been talking about this police brutality problem, this police versus minority problem in France. And there are parallels drawn between the French and American situations.

BEARDSLEY: Zagrodzki says both French and American police overwhelmingly target minorities. But when it comes to violence, he says, there is no comparison. French police kill 10 to 15 people a year. American police kill more than a thousand.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: At a rally this week, protesters evoked a high-profile police killing of another black man more than 30 years ago. Franco-American Idris M’Bodou (ph) was there. He grew up in the U.S. and now lives in France.

IDRIS M’BODOU: In the States, me as a black man, like, every time that I see a police officer and it's serious, you know, I have to always think, you know, am I going to get shot, (laughter) you know? I don't feel that as much in France. No, no. I feel that it's more egalitarian. Or it attempts to be more egalitarian. I feel freer here.

BEARDSLEY: Though, M’Bodou admits that black Americans do enjoy a special kind of status in France. France became a haven for African American writers, musicians and artists looking to escape Jim Crow America. But other French blacks say racism is rampant, it's just more hidden and subtle than in America. MaryJane M’bokolo (ph) was born in France to Congolese parents.

MARYJANE M’BOKOLO: France is a very hypocrite country. They look at the U.S.A. and say, oh, my God. It's so racist country. But our country is so racist even in the institution. For example, in school, when your parents are African, they make you feel like you're not French.

BEARDSLEY: France does not keep statistics on race on the principle that everyone is equal under the republic. Actor Thierry Picaut says that does not make France colorblind.

THIERRY PICAUT: American people know that there racism in the country. Here, everyone want to pretend like it's nothing. So I'm actually very surprised and almost emotional today being here because I've been to many protests, and it's the first time that I see so many white people.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Beyond the Adama Traore case, George Floyd's death is pushing France into a national conversation about racism within the police and society as a whole.

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CHRISTOPHE CASTANER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: This week, French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced a ban on the use of chokeholds by the police and said there would be zero tolerance for racism in law enforcement. Tomorrow, there will be more protests to demand that Adama Traore's case be reopened.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "UNDER A WARM RAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.