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Incomparable? George Floyd, Adama Traoré, and the War on Drugs in the Sister Republics

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore.

Screenshot 2020-07-07 at 6.54.53 AM

In late May massive protests erupted in the U.S. and France in response to police brutality against people of color. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on 25 May, which compounded tensions already heightened by the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery weeks earlier, prompted demonstrations in dozens of cities across the U.S., many of them met by militarized police units deploying flashbangs, tear gas, and rubber bullets in the name of “law and order.” In France, the government’s official denial on 29 May of an appeal for justice by the family of Adama Traoré, murdered by French police in July 2016, sparked a protest at Porte de Clichy in northwest Paris, where 20,000 people chanted the shared last words of Floyd and Traoré in French, “Je n’arrive pas à respirer.” A key organizer of the protests, Assa Traoré (Adama’s sister), declared in a speech, “Today, when we fight for George Floyd, we fight for Adama Traoré (…) What is happening in the United States is an echo of what is happening in France.”

Though the similarities between the lives and deaths of Traoré and Floyd are many and striking, the French government, through its spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye, officially declared that the men’s deaths and resulting mass demonstrations were “not exactly comparable, neither in terms of history nor in terms of the organization of society.” In France, Ndiaye argued, “there is no instituted state violence.” President Emmanuel Macron also chimed in, arguing on 10 June that universities were to blame for “ethnicizing the social question” for financial gain, radicalizing students, and “breaking the Republic in two.” 

While there have been comparably fewer deaths in police custody in France in recent decades, drug policing in the Hexagon, as in the U.S., is deeply rooted in the nation’s colonial past. And the cases of Floyd and Traoré, and 1000s of others who suffered similar fates, are unfortunately the latest chapters in the still-unfolding histories of colonial policing in both republics.

* * * * *

The ubiquity of drugs in cases of police brutality against Black and Brown people is striking. And the cases of Floyd and Traoré are no exception. Both men had run-ins with the law involving drug possession and/or dealing, which ultimately pulled them into the criminal justice systems of their respective countries. Floyd’s first arrest in 1997 was for cocaine possession; Traoré was initially pulled over in 2016 with his brother, who was wanted in connection to a violent crime associated with drug dealing, which then led to Traoré’s chase, arrest, and death in police custody. Both Floyd and Traoré had cannabis in their systems at the time of their death in police custody; Floyd also tested positive for fentanyl and amphetamine.[1] And in their autopsy reports both the French and Minnesota medical examiners noted high levels of THC in the bloodstreams of both men and argued that cannabis intoxication contributed to their deaths (even though both died from asphyxia due to unlawful restraint).

Even in death both men routinely have been lambasted by politicians, pundits, and police unions as “druggies” and “thugs” whose public intoxication caused the officers to “fear for their lives” and thus justifiably use excessive force. One of officers now charged with George Floyd’s murder even told witnesses, as his partner Derek Chauvain knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, “Don’t do drugs, guys,” implying that this kind of (lethal) force justifiably awaited any who abused intoxicants, and especially when Black. In the minds of the police and their apologists, then, drugs function as both a cause and consequence of criminality among people of color, providing a circular logic for the violent, over-policing and mass incarceration of minority communities deemed threats to social order. 

As several scholars have argued in the last decade, drugs policing in the U.S. is most productively (and ethically) analyzed within the historical contexts of settler colonialism and slavery and their lasting legacies in modern American society.  As scholar Sherene H. Razack put it, “white settler violence directed at those imagined as threats lives just beneath the surface of everyday settler life, and importantly, flow through institutions such as policing, embedding itself in everyday professional routines…policing is one site where white men and women (as well as those aspiring to whiteness), can exact racial hierarchy on behalf of the colonial state with impunity.”[2]

The institutional development of policing in the U.S. historically flowed in large part from this desire to maintain white supremacy and colonial order through the formal end of empire and slavery. The first state police forces emerged in colonial America out of “slave patrols” (earliest formed in South Carolina in 1704), tasked with tracking down escapees and enforcing slave codes. Local and municipal forces that followed a century later were predominantly white, nativist, and devoted to maintaining segregation and snuffing out disorder believed to be emanating from poor, immigrant, and African-American communities in cities like Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. After the Civil War, Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and the KKK in the South, coupled with a rise in violence against Black people in the North at the hands of police forces made anxious by the Great Migration, had by the 1930s already solidified the foundations for the widespread discriminatory police and carceral systems of today.

The official advent of the War on Drugs during the Nixon era, and its militarization and globalization under Reagan, built on those foundations a half century of police brutality and mass incarceration of Black Americans. While drug prohibition in the U.S. arose during the first half of the 20th century from a complex calculus involving variables beyond race, the implementation and expansion of drug policing since the formalization of prohibition clearly has disproportionately targeted people of color. Despite consuming drugs at similar rates to white citizens, Black and Brown Americans are arrested for drug use on average 4 times more often. Coupled with systemic and institutionalized racism within police forces, this heightened frequency of arrests contributes to higher rates of police brutality, particularly against drug users deemed criminals in the eyes of the justice system. 

And as Max Daly wrote in a recent article for Vice, time and again the police have justified and/or explained away this violence against Black and Brown Americans with the “high on drugs defence.” From the near murder of Rodney King in 1992 (all officers acquitted thanks to bogus claims King was on PCP), through the murders of Michael Brown in 2012 (grand jury failed to indict officer after video surfaced of Brown selling weed) and Philando Castile in 2016 (officer claimed to fear for life after smelling cannabis), to the murder of George Floyd in May (medical examiner claims drugs in system contributed to death, setting up “excited delirium” defense), the police routinely cite victims’ drug use (or outright lie about it) to justify the need for excessive force and elude criminal culpability. 

As Michelle Alexander detailed in The New Jim Crow, surviving a drug arrest as a Black or Brown American then requires surviving a criminal justice system intent on maintaining white supremacy through mass incarceration. Built from the legacies of settler colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow, the criminal justice and carceral systems of the U.S., according to Alexander,  “permanently lock a huge percentage of the African American community out of the mainstream society and economy” and thus function to reinforce a “caste system.” After the 1970s the increasingly militarized and globalized War on Drugs became the primary motor of this carceral and caste system, swelling the disproportionately Black and Brown prison population from 350,000 in 1972 to nearly 2.2 million today. Though racial disparity rates in prison populations (state and federal) have declined in recent years, African Americans remain 5 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites in the U.S. and make up nearly 35% of those incarcerated for non-violent drug-related crimes at state and federal levels (~158,000 total). 

This ongoing Drug War, Alexander argues, has created “a new racial undercaste…in an astonishingly short period of time,” a “new Jim Crow system” in which “millions of people of color are now saddled with criminal records and legally denied the very rights that their parents and grandparents fought for and, in some cases, died for.” Barred from federal student loans, many job interviews, and often fair housing opportunities, convicted drug offenders and particularly those of color, now labeled “felons” by the state, face daily and authorized discrimination in nearly all facets of life, thus maintaining their “undercaste” status within the American social and racial hierarchy. Though George Floyd was much, much more than just a casualty of the War on Drugs, his life and tragic death were unjustly shaped by these living legacies of colonial and drugs policing in the U.S. 

A War on Drugs of a slightly different nature and scope but with similar roots in colonialism shaped the life and death of Adama Traoré in France. There, as in the U.S., the history of drugs policing, and especially from the early 20th century on, was notably influenced by the legacies of colonialism but in North and West Africa. 

The early history of policing in France stretches back to the ancien regime and is less connected with colonialism than with maintaining royal authority in times of crisis. King Francis I created the first police officers, called maréchaussée, in the 1540s, primarily to stop his own soldiers from plundering peasants. In the 1660s, after the plague and poor harvests led to riots, Louis XIV established the position of lieutenant general. In the following century, several lieutenant generals expanded the force in Paris to over 3000 officers, 20 inspectors, and 48 commissioners spread across the city’s 20 districts.[3]

After the Revolution, the maréchaussée became the Gendarmerie nationale, originally controlled by Joseph Fouché, who also created the Préfecture de Police de Paris to handle serious and “political” crimes (mostly against Napoleon). In 1812 the Sûreté nationale, today called the Police nationale, was created out of this Préfecture to police major urban areas. And Fouché likewise established the foundations of the Police municipale in towns with a population of at least 5000. This three-tiered system survived the proceeding political revolutions of the 19th century and more or less survives as the organizational foundation of French policing today. 

With France’s colonial expansion into North and West Africa during the middle 19th century, and particularly the nation’s inclusion of Algeria’s administrative departments into the Republic proper in 1848, came a turn toward discriminatory policing against indigenous (non-white) populations that spread from the colonies to the metropole and ultimately across the three tiers of the French police. Before the rise of the Second French Empire, police forces in France certainly discriminated against political foes, labor unions, deviants, and the occasional foreigners. But the inclusion of millions of Arabo-Muslim people into the French Republic, first as colonial subjects and then as citizens, spawned unequal and separate legal codes, discriminatory policing practices, and restrictive immigration policies, all designed to simultaneously promote assimilation (i.e. the near total rejection of indigenous culture and adoption of French ways of life and laïcité) and restrict the number who “successfully” assimilate (thus maintaining white supremacy within French territory). 

As I detail in my forthcoming book, Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in Nineteenth-Century France, French colonial police and officials routinely pointed to the use of intoxicants, and especially hashish, among Arabo-Muslim people in French Algeria during the mid-to-late 1800s as both the cause and consequence of their criminality and thus as a justification for the firm hand of colonialism. Between 1850 and 1880 over a dozen cases of “hashish crazed Muslims” committing acts of public violence in Algeria made headlines in the French press. One such case involved Soliman-ben-Mohammed, who in the summer of 1857 attacked a crowd of Jewish Algerians at a market while intoxicated on hashish, wounding seven and killing one.

The criminal court of Algiers found Soliman guilty of murder and sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment. The psychologists hired by the court to interview the defendant before the trial argued that “hashish can lead one to commit acts dangerous to public safety; we thus demand that something be done to prohibit the sale of all preparations of Cannabis indica in French Algeria.” By the end of the year the Governor-General of Algiers, Jacques-Louis Randon, having read the testimonies and facts of the case, passed an official decree on 16 December 1857 regulating the sale and consumption of hashish in Algerian cafés and prohibiting the sale of hashish to minors.

Though Randon’s prohibition ended abruptly when he was replaced as Governor general the following year, the trial of Soliman-ben-Mohammed in 1857 and others like it helped to popularize the idea that cannabis intoxication caused excessive criminality among Muslims. This idea was deployed by several colonial officials, and namely Émile Bertherand, in later decades to justify the creation of the Code de l’Indigénat in 1881, which formalized a separate and unequal legal code for Muslim Algerians that, in the words of historian Judith Surkis, “justified the French system of extraordinary and excessive punishment” of Muslims in French space and “thus contributed to a broader effort to consolidate the legal, cultural, and sexual differences between ‘Europeans’ and indigènes.”[4]

This legacy of unjust colonial policing followed North and West Africans (as well migrants from the Caribbean, Indochina, and France’s other territorial possessions) as they migrated to the metropole to escape the Indigénat. The works of Neil MacMaster, Jim House, and Amit Prakash, among others, have convincingly shown how metropolitan politicians, pundits, and police targeted colonial migrants and labors from North Africa as natural-born criminals and threats to social order. As Prakash writes, “Police officials and municipal councillors of various political stripes considered the relative freedom accorded to colonial subjects by virtue of crossing the Mediterranean as a recipe for social and political discord.”[5] To stem the tide, the Prefecture de Police in the late 1920s created the Service de Surveillance et de Protection des Indigènes Nord-Africains (SSPINA), with offices in Paris, Lyon, and Marseilles, which surveilled North Africans in the metropole for their affiliation with “anti-French political movements.” These North African Brigades, as their officers were called, were built on the model of the colonial Arab Bureau, the de facto police of the Algerian indigènes, and likewise were given the power to perform extralegal raids and surveillance, indefinitely detain suspects without cause, and essentially terrorize the North African community with impunity. And “what animated this desire for controlling colonial subjects in both metropole and colony,” Prakash argues, “was a racist stereotype of North Africans as essentially violent, unpredictable, backward, stupefied by their religion and its customs, impervious to rational through, and, consequently susceptible to the irrational impulse to challenge French sovereignty.”[6]

Official perceptions that Muslims committed crimes at higher rates because of cannabis use likewise followed North African migrants to the metropole during the 20th century, further contributing to their over-policing. In the debates leading up to the creation of the law of 31 December 1971, which structures France’s current drug prohibition regime, several members of the National Assembly argued that the nation must expel “undesirable foreigners” engaged in drug smuggling, including “hippies” and “persons who travel excessively to the Orient.” Another contended that student rebellions, street violence, and the rise in drug-related arrests all stemmed from “the introduction of foreign elements into our country that brought with them radical philosophies and at the same time drugs.” And yet another hit right at the heart of the issue: “Not only does the young addict destroy himself, but he also becomes a social danger. The word assassin, moreover, does it not derive phonetically from the word for the Muslim sect of hashish smokers? The filiation between drugs and crime is not only assonance; it is a reality.”[7]

While the illegality of statistics based on race in France (since 1978) prevents us from knowing for sure, a growing number in France believe that this orientalized rhetoric and colonial history of policing have translated into the disproportionate policing and mass incarceration of Black and Arab citizens and migrants in France today, and mainly for drug crimes

As I’ve written elsewhere, several studies published in the past decade suggest that Black, Brown, and especially Muslim people in major cities, are 6 to 8 times more likely to be arrested for a drug crime, and generally a cannabis-related crime, than their white counterparts despite consuming drugs and nearly identical rates. While making up only 9% of the French population (6 of 67 million), it is estimated that over 50% of the 70,000 people imprisoned in France are Black or Brown Muslims.  And of the 70,000 prisoners in France, some 16% are imprisoned for drug crimes, with ~95% of all drug-related arrests involving cannabis or hashish. Taken together, as many as 1 in 6 French prisoners could be there for using/selling cannabis while Black, Brown, and/or Muslim. 

Much like George Floyd in Minneapolis, then, the 24-year-old Frenchman, Adama Traroé, statistically was many times more likely to be stopped by the police for a drug-related crime than his white countrymen. Much like George Floyd, Adama Traoré died facing the violence of a police force and judicial system intent on his dehumanization. And much as in the U.S., this ongoing state violence against people of color in France is the product of a colonial history of drug policing that has yet to be overcome. 


  1. It should be noted that an independent autopsy requested by the Traoré family produced a toxicology report that found not THC or alcohol in Adama Traoré’s bloodstream, countering the initial medical report conducted by French officials. See

  2. Sherene H. Razack, “Settler Colonialism, Policing and Racial Terror: The Police Shooting of Loreal Tsingine,” Feminist Legal Studies  28 (2020): 1-20, 1.

  3. Malcolm Anderson, In Thrall to Political Change: Police and Gendarmerie in France (Oxford University Press, 2011).

  4. Judith Surkis, Sex, Law and Sovereignty in French Algeria, 1830-1930 (Cornell University Press, 2019).

  5. Amit Prakash, “Colonial Techniques in the Imperial Capital: The Prefecture of Police and the Surveillance of North Africans in Paris, 1925-crica 1970,” French Historical Studies 36:3 (Summer 2013), 482.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Journal officiel de la République française: Débats parlementaires – Assemblée nationale, Compte rendu des séances 63 (Friday, 24 October 1969): 2935, 2944-5.


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