The South African opera star Pretty Yende has accused French immigration authorities of “outrageous racial discrimination” after being detained, strip searched and held in a dark room at Paris’ main airport.
“Police brutality is real for someone who looks like me,” Yende, who is black, said in a social media post on Tuesday, a day after the encounter at the Charles de Gaulle airport.
Yende, an acclaimed soprano, had arrived this week to take her starring role in La Sonnambula, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris. She flew into the city on Monday where, she said, she was subjected to “ill treatment and outrageous racial discrimination and psychological torture and very offensive racial comments”.
Yende, who was performing Tuesday evening, and her agent, could not immediately be reached by The Associated Press for comment.
In her posts on Facebook and Instagram Yende said that airport police had confiscated her belongings, including her mobile phone and had taken her to a “retention cell” at the airport. “I was stripped and searched like a criminal offender,” Yende said. She was then left alone in a dark room and told to write down phone numbers of family and friends on a piece of paper. “It was cold in there, there was no light in the beginning.”
She told an officer her phone battery was dying and asked if she could borrow a charger. The officer, she said, told her: “Listen to me carefully, you will not have your phone.” She described his tone as harsh and condescending. “I asked, am I a prisoner? He rudely said yes, and I decided to comply and just do what they say.”
The experience was traumatising and scary, Yende wrote. “I was filled with so many negative thoughts. I’m still shaken thinking that I am one in a million who managed to come out of that situation alive.”
A French official, who spoke anonymously because he was not allowed to speak publicly on the issue, said that Yende was questioned by police because she held a South African passport and did not have a French visa to enter the country.
“The documents she was showing did not allow her to enter French territory,” said the official. He said she arrived in Paris on Monday and was questioned from about 5pm to 6pm before being released. After a verification process she “received a visa regularising her situation”. She thanked the police when she was allowed to leave, he added.
The official said it was standard to strip-search someone held because of improper paperwork. “That’s usual procedure, there is a pat-down inspection and a search for security reasons.”
In a follow-up post Yende thanked fans and fellow singers for an outpouring of support and outrage on social media. She said she was not “brutally interrogated and physically tortured like many” but she felt thankful to be alive.
Yende is scheduled to sing the lead role in La Traviata, at the Vienna State Opera in September, and has engagements with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in October, and Washington National Opera, in November. She has appeared frequently at the Metropolitan Opera, in New York, and elsewhere.