Mar 1st, 2017, 02:47 PM

The Hidden Social Crisis Behind L'Affaire Théo

By Sara Hafi
Image Credit: Pixabay
Theo is a young 22-year-old man with no criminal record who was allegedly raped with a police baton on February 2 during an identity check in his hometown of Aulnay-sous-Bois.

"L'affaire Theo," as the French media refer to it, is the affair of a police officer charged with the rape of a young man, and three other officers who were charged with assault. The police argue that it was not a rape but rather an accident. However, Theo had also been physically beaten, insulted, and humiliated. After the incident, a wave of protests in the Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois exploded, and the news shocked the country. During Theo's hospitalization at the Robert Ballanger Hospital in Aulnay, the doctor diagnosed "a longitudinal wound of the anal canal" and "a section of the sphincter muscle." Theo was prescribed 60 days of total incapacity to work. Police brutality is once again in the spotlight in France. Indeed, it is not the first time where French police officers have been accused of using excessive force, especially against minorities.

On social networks, many celebrities are showing support for Theo: Vincent Cassel, Omar Sy, Booba, Imany, Stéphane Guillon, Soprano and many others are outraged by this aggression.

            Image Credit: Creative Commons/Mrsdonzaleighabernathy

While the officers who allegedly assaulted and raped Theo are still yet to be charged, the sanctions fall against those who denounce police brutality. The French rapper Jo Le Pheno had to appear on February 22 before a correctional court for his clip "Bavure": a music video released last August. The song provoked anger from police who denounced the lyrics as "outrageous." Two police unions believe that his words glorify violence and hatred against police officers. However, it is said that justice takes action when the political context serves the police—and that’s what people are claiming to have happened. The rapper was not tried last Wednesday as agreed. The hearing of Jo Le Pheno was postponed last-minute to the September 27. The song recalls "L’affaire Théo," and Jo Le Phéno argues that he simply described the daily life of young people who live in poor suburbs and who suffer from police violence on a daily basis. "L’affaire Theo spotlights this fact,” Jo Le Pheno’s lawyer said during an interview. For Jo le Pheno, many rappers sing worse things: “This complaint is completely ridiculous. It's grotesque," he argued during an interview for L'Express. The rapper defends himself by explaining that it is not an incitement to hatred against policemen: "It is a denunciation, we are fed up with police blunders. When I am home I see policemen beating young people every day.”

Image Credit: Creative Commons/drestwn

The current climate could have been influential in the judgment of Jo Le Pheno. The context is very important: we are in an explosive election period. Everything can play in the analysis of the judges. Since there are no laws that tell how far an artist can go, we can beg the question: is there a legal limit to the freedom of expression? Indeed, rappers often sing songs about the police such as Sniper, Orelsan, Booba, or NTM. It's one of their recurring themes. In 1993, the NTM group released a song called "Police". The two rappers were sentenced to two months suspended prison and a fine of 50,000 Francs (€7600). In 2003, the rappers of the group Sniper are the subject of a complaint filed by Nicolas Sarkozy. The group was finally acquitted. More recently, the artist Orelsan was also relaxed. In February 2016, the rapper is judged not for targeting the police, but for "provoking discrimination, hatred or violence" against women. Rap is "by nature a brutal, provocative, vulgar, even violent mode of expression since it reflects a disillusioned and revolting generation" the Court of Appeals argued.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/Japaneseclass

While artists' convictions are possible, they remain exceptional. In an interview, Pierre Lautier, a copyright lawyer in Paris assures that "there is no law that explains how far artists can go in their songs". He continues by explaining that in these type of cases, two categories of law are in conflict: "On the one hand, there is freedom of expression, which is a pillar of our democracy. On the other hand, there is incitement to hatred, which may be racial, sexist or targeted at persons holding public authority such as police officers. The analysis of the judges, who must determine which category of law must prevail over the other, is therefore necessarily subjective," argued the lawyer.

Last summer, a young black man, Adama Traoré, died on July 19, 2016. He was out with his older brother Bagui when he had been arrested by the police. Hours after a violent identity check, Adama died in police custody. The unexplained circumstances of Adama’s death, his family’s fight for justice made this case one of the most terrible that spotlights police brutality. Riots also erupted in 2005 when two teenagers were electrocuted while being chased by police officers.

Image Credit: Creative Commons/parijs

Targeting rappers will not resolve the conflict. They are not the reason for the divide that has been created between the police and young people who live in suburbs. The rappers are not in charge of the education of young people. In fact, they can influence with their songs. However, their songs are a testimony of a certain reality. The lyrics of Jo le Pheno is may be intolerable but Jo Le Pheno does not represent all rappers. On the other hand, the behavior of the four officers is intolerable. No one should have to undergo what Theo went through on February 2nd. It was barbarity. No uniform, not even the police uniform is above justice. To position themselves as the victim by attacking apparently outrageous rap lyrics only worsens a worrying situation.

Anger and frustration can bring humans to act unthinkingly.