As I step out of the tourism office in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis, the young man who will try to pickpocket me asks if I can take a picture of him. I’m here for a class project to explore the neighborhood, so I’m in an obliging mood. Centering him in my Nikon’s splotchy viewfinder, I turn a few knobs on its black steel frame until my light meter is satisfied. Then I shoot. The shutter slams open and shut. It captures his rakish pose, his tight braids, his lopsided smile into grains of silver, nitric acid, and gelatin.
Karim thanks me cheerfully, shaking my hand (I cringe at my clammy palm, hoping he wouldn’t judge it too harshly). Then, equally cheerfully, he offers to show me a dance. I watch with curiosity as he wraps his left leg around my right leg, flings an arm around my left shoulder, and begins to jump us up and down like a pair of victorious football players after a goal. Grinning, he looks at me, his expression suggesting: “Isn’t this fun?”
The fun is cut short. Two police officers tear Karim off me and slam him to the wall. One pulls out handcuffs and snaps them around his wrists. They glint in the sun while Karim writhes against the police officer and pleads his innocence.
It’s early afternoon. I’m on the main drag of Saint-Denis, a banlieue, or suburb, of Paris largely populated by communities of African and Middle Eastern descent. The banlieue has been isolated and stigmatized by much of French society; today, it suffers from government underfunding and increasing police violence. Here, I hoped to be a witness to how this side of Saint-Denis manifests.
Earlier that afternoon, I arrived at Saint Denis after disembarking from a sleek train, traversing a tramway and crossing a canal. The street is bustling; people walk up and down, perusing the many clothing stores that dominate the street: Kelly 89, Freedom, Nana Shop. Out of the stores, harsh incandescent light and mannequins wearing puffy jackets spill into the street. A few kids play football in a fenced-off lot between two row houses; a food truck sells crêpes to passersby. At the end of the road looms a 12th-century Gothic basilica, the Basilique royale de Saint-Denis, and its singular bell tower that will soon be joined by a second, reconstructed spire. I begin to mark down my observations.
Police presence on the street seemed a normalized part of life. Near the end of the street, I walked past four police officers who stood over a group of men drinking tea outside a café. They ask one of the men to stand up, before handcuffing him and taking him around the corner, out of sight. No one around the incident seemed to bat an eye. Later, I saw another squad of four officers carrying away a TV box. When a man approached to try to talk with them, they shooed him away. I didn’t take any pictures of these events because, unlike in the U.S., in France the public is strictly forbidden from photographing or videoing the police.
Along the road, an abundance of government signs celebrated the demolition and rebuilding of homes (“here, uncleanliness retreats!”). But one of these signs fixed to the second floor of a soot-covered building covers up another message in spray-painted lettering, which reads:
ne pas enl erté d’expression.
The message almost certainly reads underneath: “ne pas enlever notre liberté d’expression.” Don’t take away our freedom of expression.
On my way to the basilica at the end of the road, I passed an archaeological excavation site of a graveyard of a number of French nobility. The site’s fencing displayed several city initiatives to improve the neighborhood: a new plaza with more trees, additional greenspaces in smaller roads, new business infrastructure and housing renovations. One of the final panels stated: “Votre future centre-ville se dessine.” The future of your city center is taking shape. Underneath the “you” of this message, a question scrawled in spray-paint asks: “Notre?” Ours?
It’s by this sign near the basilica that Karim approaches me. Once the two police officers, Abdul and Jeremy, arrest him, Abdul tells me what happened. He says that in the middle of his “dance,” he saw Karim pull my phone out of my pocket to steal, before slipping it back as he saw the two officers approach. With a sort of tired resignation, Abdul says that Karim has probably been arrested three or four times a month for similar crimes. He adds that hasn’t seen a pickpocket like him try to steal from someone so brazenly in such a public location before. Meanwhile, Jeremy keeps Karim’s face pressed to the wall. Karim speaks rapidly, imploring me to help him, claiming his innocence in French and then Arabic as his voice gains a new urgency. His words start to stream together and I stop being able to understand them until eventually all I can hear is one plea: “je suis pas voleur!” I’m not a thief! I turn away from him, hesitant to respond to him now that the officers have arrived.
After about ten minutes, a police car arrives to take Karim to the station. Abdul and I head there too, because he says I need to provide my witness testimony. Setting off on foot, we pass through an oppressively brutalist shopping center. Each successive floor juts out further into the street, creating a canopy of faded concrete and sharp corners that cast heavy shadows over the storefronts below. As we walk, I feel people’s eyes on me, flanked as I am by Abdul with his bulletproof vest, pistol, and bodycam. His presence next to me makes it clear that I’m someone that the police system wants to protect. I feel uneasy about the forced alliance that his protection creates between us.
In my eight years of taking French classes, I didn’t expect that education to lead me to the second floor of a sleek police station in a suburb of Paris. But here we are. After a good time waiting, I now enter an office with four other police officers who type away at their desks. A pink scented candle and a poster of striding elephants decorate the otherwise spartan office.
I’m beckoned to a seat opposite one of the police officers who I’ll call Marie. She begins to question me about the details of what happened, asking about Karim’s appearance. I panic slightly, having forgotten my seventh-grade unit on physical description, but manage to get through by talking about his blue hoodie and gray sweatpants. She asks how Karim approached me, and if I felt him take my phone out of my pocket. I describe the story as best I can, and respond that I did not actually feel him pickpocket my phone, but that Abdul and Jeremy did see him do that. While Marie types up my report, I get to know the officers at the three other desks in the room. They seem flummoxed at why I was here, asking why an American university student would venture beyond the scenic bubble of Paris intra-muros into what they see as a notoriously crime-ridden suburb. I hold back my full response, instead saying that I’m on a project for my French class to observe three roads in the city. It causes one of them to laugh, a balding Brown man with a gray beard who I’ll call Jerome. “C’est pas possible ! ” he says. Unbelievable!
My story also elicits a more charged remark from another officer, a white, bearded man who I’ll call Pierre. He’s the one with the pink scented candle on his desk. When I finish by saying I’m here to see France, the officer looks at me and says, with surprising venom, “Saint-Denis, ce n’est pas la France.” Saint-Denis is not France.
I look at him for a moment, not sure if I heard him correctly. This is a highly charged statement, one employed by the far right in their effort to stoke up fear about France’s “Islamisation.” Eric Zemmour, president of the conservative Reconquête party, had said something similar about the commune of Saint-Denis during his presidential campaign in 2022. Zemmour quipped that Saint-Denis “is no longer France…. There are little islands of France [there], but apart from that, it’s all foreign enclaves,” full of “the usual people from the banlieues: thieves, looters and all sorts.” I didn’t expect Pierre to allude to this conservative anxiety so openly. And I didn’t feel capable of calling him out, so I feigned ignorance and laughed along with him.
Like many other banlieues around Paris, Saint-Denis’ modern form came out of a housing crisis in the 50s, when immigrants came to the city faster than it could accommodate them. Many of these immigrants were from North Africa, encouraged by Paris’ government to come rebuild the city after World War Two. In response to the housing crisis, the city poured money into huge estates, or cités. These were hastily-built and exceedingly functionalist hulking concrete apartments that were quickly decried for their depressing architecture and their claustrophobic atmosphere. Planners threw together these almost exclusively residential developments without including supporting public infrastructure like parks, libraries, business areas to provide localized employment, or robust public transport. These decisions, historians have argued, were intentional. Thomas Kirszbaum, an urban policy sociologist at the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan, emphasizes this in an interview with Bloomberg, saying that “the choice was made not to mix these [immigrants, both from North Africa and Europe] with the others but to separate them in specific neighborhoods or in specific housing within these neighborhoods—so from the outset, the segregation model was in place.”
Subsequent underfunding by the state, job discrimination from employers within Paris’ borders, and a paternalistic government attitude have sabotaged banlieues like Saint-Denis. The largely-immigrant region now has one of the highest poverty rates in mainland France. Relatively frequent crime stemming from these factors provoke a racialized police response. Nationwide, the police are 20 times more likely to stop men perceived as Arab or Black for an ID check than the rest of the population, according to a 2017 study by human rights group Défenseur des Droits. And stops frequently lead to violence towards these minorities, from these ID-checks to beatings to killings. Just this past summer, an officer shot and killed Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old boy of Moroccan and Algerian descent, during a traffic stop. The murder sparked protests across the country.
Inside the police station, I feel the officers trying to keep the atmosphere light with some banter. Pierre asks me, in what I hope is some kind of a joke, “Do they have the death penalty in New Jersey?”
“Uhh… maybe?” I reply (the state banned it in 2007, but I don’t remember that).
“Oh really! Can you bring a plus one on the plane back? The thief should come with you,” he shoots back, before Marie interjects: “No, that would be too easy. He should suffer more.”
Smiling, Jerome chimes in: “Right. No more football on television.”
They all chuckle. I start to join in, more to appease them than anything else. I notice how I feel drawn to that impulse to appease. It almost feels instinctive, a way to make clear my allegiance to their authority.
It’s not long before Jerome finds out more information about my pickpocket. When he does, he shakes his head and scoffs. Looking at Karim’s record, Jerome says that he ran into me barely an hour after he came out of a court hearing where he was defending himself for pulling the exact same pickpocketing move he used on me to someone else the night before. Jerome opens the CCTV footage, and the officers all crowd around. I lean in too. Sure enough, a blurry Karim emerges from the dark, approaches a man, flings an arm around him, locks legs with him, and begins to jump enthusiastically. The officers around me can’t believe the footage. They jeer, finding his audacity almost as amusing as it was outrageous. As I watch with them, I feel implicated in their gaze.
It’s getting late when Marie releases me from the police station. She prints out the case file, asks me to sign it, walks me to the elevator, and sends me on my way. I make my way through the brutalist shopping center, turn the corner at the basilica, and dodge through the crowd on rue de la Républic to make my way back to the station. I step on a train and pull away from Saint-Denis.
The system of racial inequality and policing I saw that day felt at once strikingly familiar and yet starkly different to the one I grew up with in Baltimore. In Saint-Denis, people walking on the street are not only viewed as potential criminals, but officers like Pierre think they live in “not France.” In the connotations to that statement, xenophobia adds another dimension to racism.
After my interactions with this system, I saw I had become a vector for the police. Sure, Karim was the one who tried to steal my phone. But I, with my Nikon camera, white skin and American passport, was the one who connected Abdul and Jeremy to Karim so that they could arrest him. I had enabled this system through the arrest, and this undermined how much I could really be an observer to the situation.
A week after I return to campus, the photos from my trip come back from the film developer. I open the portrait I took of Karim. There he is: eyebrows raised, a slight smile playing across his face, flashing a peace sign in the middle of the street. As I look at his picture, questions surface in my mind. Where is Karim now? When he asked me to take a picture of him, what did he want me to see?