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Anti-Asian assaults a ‘neglected’ plight in France

The death of tailor Zhang Chaolin after an attack in northern Paris in 2016 sparked protests

Vitry-sur-Seine, France | AFP |  Ming was getting off the bus in the Paris suburbs when a masked man attempted to rip her handbag from her. When she resisted, the attacker threw her to the ground and beat her unconscious.

The ordeal left her with two fractures and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She could not work for three weeks.

Campaigners fear such attacks are part of an under-reported wave of racially-targeted violence against French people of Asian origin, fuelled by racist stereotypes and mistaken beliefs about “rich” tourists.

Ming, who gave a pseudonym because she continues to fear for her safety, lost her bag, containing a few dozen euros and her ID cards in the attack in the southeastern Paris suburb of Val-de-Marne.

But it is the sense of helplessness and anger that the 41-year-old says she has struggled to get over.

“Why me? I didn’t have any money on me, no jewellery, nothing. Why such violence?” she said.

It was the death of tailor Zhang Chaolin in northern Paris in 2016 that first brought to light assaults on members of the Asian community.

The 49-year-old father-of-two was on his way to a restaurant in a Paris suburb when he was violently mugged by two teenagers, who came away with just a phone charger and some sweets. They were jailed in 2018.

That attack, which followed a string of robberies targeting Chinese tourists and small-business owners in France’s gritty high-rise suburbs, sparked mass protests against what demonstrators called a rise in anti-Asian racism in poorer French communities.

“We realised that there was a problem with the death of Chaolin but not its scale,” said Sun-Lay Tan, spokesman of Security for Everyone, a community group based in Val-de-Marne.

Because France bans statistics on ethnicity, there is no official data on these assaults, but campaigners said they have begun to see a pattern.

The victim, often a woman or an elderly person, is spotted in the street, followed into a deserted area and attacked.

“The victims are targeted because they are Asian,” said Tan.

He said he has “no doubt” that the attacks are rooted in racism.

“‘They are weak’, ‘they always have cash on them’, ‘they don’t know how to defend themselves’… these are the stereotypes behind the attacks.”

– Fighting a ‘taboo’ – 

Without an ethnicity breakdown in the police assault figures, only the broader number of complaints filed is available.

Police recorded 114 assaults between May 2018 and May 2019, the equivalent of an attack every three days, most of them in the Val-de-Marne area.

But campaigners fear the issue is more widespread and accuse the authorities of “neglecting” this form of racism.

Many people who have been attacked do not file a complaint, either fearing retaliation, because they are ashamed or because they do not have a valid residency permit.

“Getting into contact with people who have been assaulted isn’t easy because victims feel isolated and are not aware that other people are being attacked,” said Laetitia Chhiv, head of Association for Young Chinese in France (AJCF).

Robert Na Champassak said he joined Security for Everyone, which supports victims in their legal battles to bring the attackers to justice, to “lift the taboo” surrounding these attacks.

His 64-year-old mother died from a stroke 18 days after being assaulted on her way to a dance class in 2017.

While the doctors did not draw a causal link between the attack and the stroke, Robert is convinced the assault precipitated the deterioration of her health.

“My mother loved living. But after the attack she didn’t want to put a foot outside. She wasn’t the same,” he said.

– Gang ‘rite of passage’? –

Approached for comment, police and the town halls all said they were closely following the issue.

Prosecutors from Val-de-Marne explained that they add the aggravating circumstance of racism “as often as they can” to the case, which they did in 19 out of 22 attacks recorded in May.

One police official said that assaulting people of Asian origin may be a “rite of passage” to join a gang.

“We have youth that are pumped up because they are convinced that Asians always have a lot of money on them,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“For them, it’s a game, a bet. Which explains the often extreme level of violence,” he said.

The AJCF’s Chhiv said “matters are improving”.

A pilot project organised with the association SOS Racism and aimed at deconstructing harmful stereotypes is shortly to be launched in schools across the Parisian region in order to raise awareness.

But campaigners are pushing local authorities to install surveillance cameras and to pursue offenders.

“Prevention is essential, but arresting and sentencing the attackers is just as important for the victims,” said Sun-Lay Tan.

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