PARIS — Standing on a truck, her fist clenched high and her back turned to a row of police vans, Assa Traoré galvanized the crowd before her.
“You are powerful!” she shouted, to the cheers of thousands who had gathered on the Place de la République in central Paris to protest police violence and racism. “Your faces have been seen all over the world!”
Until just a few weeks ago, Ms. Traoré, 35, a special-education teacher of Malian descent, was largely known as the spokeswoman for The Truth for Adama, an advocacy group that has demanded justice for her half brother, Adama Traoré, who died in police custody in 2016 on his 24th birthday.
But now, with the spread of Black Lives Matter protests, she has gained wider prominence as the champion of men who have been victims of discriminatory police violence in France. Ms. Traoré said that men in minority neighborhoods are more likely to be targeted by the police than women — and as a woman, she could help defend them by taking a stand where she was least expected.
“With my female voice, we’re going to make these men visible and give them a voice,” Ms. Traoré said in an interview in her apartment in the Paris suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing in the United States, which triggered a wave of anger that spanned the world, Ms. Traoré and her group have organized some of the biggest anti-racism protests in Europe.
They assembled at least 20,000 protesters in front of a Paris courthouse early in June despite a police ban, then a crowd of 15,000 just 11 days later on the Place de la République.
Protesters in recent weeks have included more white people and people from upper-class areas of Paris, Ms. Traoré said, as compared with the first demonstrations for Adama, back in 2016, which were mainly attended by people of color.
“That’s when we thought: ‘This is it, the fight for Adama has become a popular fight,’” Ms. Traoré said.
Ms. Traoré speaks with resolve.
“France has not come to terms with its history, with slavery, with colonization,” she said. “These are unsaid things that leave traces, and we suffer the consequences.”
France has struggled to confront racism for years. The Paris suburbs exploded in riots in 2005, driven by resentment among North African immigrants over their treatment by the police and discrimination in general, exposing the rest of France to the country’s racial fissures.
France, which colonized parts of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, has failed to fully integrate immigrants from its former empire. Some of that is rooted in its commitment to universalism — a belief that no group should be given preference, but one that critics say has muted discussion and shielded the country from facing its colonial legacy.
Ms. Traoré’s words have struck a chord among the younger generation, who have flocked to the protests. “She’s clear, and that makes her strong,” said Djenaba Dramé, a 21-year-old Black student at the demonstration on the Place de la République.
Christiane Taubira, who in 2012 became the first Black woman to be named Justice Minister, has called her “a chance for France.”
By all accounts, Ms. Traoré is a charismatic figure, easily identifiable as she rouses the crowd in her black T-shirt bearing the words “Justice for Adama. Without justice, you will never have peace.” She wears it almost daily.
Born in Paris in 1985, Ms. Traoré draws on a family history in both France and Mali. Two of her great-grandfathers fought alongside French troops during World War II, when Mali was still a French colony, and her father, Mara-Siré Traoré, emigrated from Mali to France at age 17.
Ms. Traoré is one of 17 siblings in a close-knit family where conversations were conducted in a blend of French, Soninke and Bambara languages. Her father married four women — two white Catholics whom he divorced and then two Malian Muslims with whom he lived at the same time, as permitted by Islamic law, despite the ban on polygamy in France.
When he died of cancer in 1999, Ms. Traoré was 14. As the eldest child still at home, she took over the reins of the family, filling in for her mother, Hatouma, who did not speak fluent French, while continuing her studies to become a special-education teacher.
“She took on an almost motherly role with my brothers and sisters,” said Lassana Traoré, 43, one of her oldest half brothers, who saw this experience as the foundation of her leadership today.
Ms. Traoré said that helping boys in disadvantaged suburbs as part of her work in special education made her realize that Black and Arab men — whom she called “our brothers” — were targeted by the police when they became teenagers, a phenomenon that Human Rights Watch documented in a report last month.
“Saying that men matter, that their voices count is part of our struggle,” Ms. Traoré said. “We must keep fighting so that all women around the world can have the rights they deserve. But who’s fighting, who’s defending our men?”
She said that she drew inspiration from “Les Misérables,” the Oscar-nominated movie of the French film director Ladj Ly that depicts police violence against Black and Arab teenagers in a Paris suburb.
“If those men had been more visible, perhaps my brother wouldn’t be dead today,” she added.
Adama, her half brother, died in the courtyard of a police station on July 19, 2016, in circumstances that are still in dispute.
Mr. Traoré was pinned down by three police officers, one of whom later acknowledged placing “the weight of all our bodies” on him, during an identity check that went awry.
Mr. Traoré reportedly said that he could not breathe and likely passed out during his transfer to the police station in Persan, a small town north of Paris, where he was pronounced dead two hours later.
Conflicting autopsies pointed to heart failure or asphyxiation as the cause of the death, but after much investigation there is still no clear picture of what happened. No charges have been filed against the officers whom the Traoré family accuse of having killed Adama.
“I told myself that his death could not remain a minor news story,” Ms. Traoré said. “We could not forget him and just pretend, ‘Here’s another guy who died over the summer.’”
But, she added, “If there hadn’t been this big organizational effort before, George Floyd’s death wouldn’t have made any difference.”
With the help of seasoned anti-racist, left-wing activists, Ms. Traoré has worked to turn her advocacy group into a movement, keeping politicians at bay and relying mostly on social networks that keep her phone buzzing all the time. She has nearly 400,000 Instagram followers.
Julien Talpin, a sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research, said that she had become “a central political figure” with whom many Black people, feeling neglected by French political parties, can easily identify.
Ms. Traoré’s activism has infuriated French right-wing news media, which accuse her of trying to tear French society apart by pitting Black and white communities against each other. It has also put her at odds with the French authorities.
She recently filed a libel suit against the Paris police chief and declined an invitation by the former justice minister, Nicole Belloubet, for a meeting, arguing that “justice should not be done in a tearoom at the Élysée Palace.”
“A confrontation has been established,” Ms. Traoré said. “It’s a small victory. But we don’t want a small victory.”