France is burning. Massive protests have gripped the nation, with thousands arrested over the course of a week, and over forty-five thousand policemen deployed to contain the demonstrations. This violent explosion of public rage has brought years of simmering resentment against the police to the surface, sharply highlighting the deep divisions in French society.
The cause behind the riots was the killing of seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk at the hands of the police. Nahel, a French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was shot on 27th June during a traffic stop. While the police claimed they shot him in self defence as Nahel’s car allegedly was about to run them over, a video circulating social media shows an alternate version of events. In the footage, one officer is heard saying “You are going to get a bullet in the head” before he fires his gun. Contrary to the police’s narrative, the car was not moving and was therefore not in a position to harm the officers.
Clashes broke out in Nanterre, the suburb where the incident took place on the same night, as youth protestors burnt bins and threw fireworks at the police. The situation escalated the next day as cars and trash were set on fire, and soon the violence spread to central Paris. Several stores were vandalised and looted with nearly 500 buildings affected and more than 800 people arrested. The enormous scale of the riots led interior minister Darmanin to announce the deployment of 40,000 police officers to take a zero-tolerance approach against the violent upheaval. The clashes finally showed signs of subsiding on Sunday, nearly a week after the killing, after Mayor Vincent Jeanbrun shared on Twitter that a burning car had rammed into his house, injuring his wife and one of his children.
This is not the first time the suburbs have erupted in protests after an incident involving the police – in fact, it is only the latest in a long series. The first suburban youth riots took place in 1979, following the arrest of a youth of North African descent. The area saw violence erupt again in 1990 and 1993 after the death of young people at the hands of the police. In 1998, 17-year-old Habib Muhammed was shot during a car theft by police, inciting riots in Toulouse. In 2005, the horrific deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore as they attempted to hide from police in a power substation incited riots lasting three weeks, leading to the imposition of national emergency.
French suburbs, or banlieue, are highly differentiated, typically impoverished and composed largely of immigrants. They are plagued by high levels of crime, illiteracy, and unemployment, and their residents remain shackled by a lack of social mobility due to both their financial constraints as well as pervasive racial stereotypes among the French majority. Despite billions of euros being poured into developmental projects to uplift the poorest neighbourhoods – the “Quartiers Prioritaires”, think tank Institute Montaigne estimates that residents of these priority neighbourhoods are three times more likely to be unemployed. This hyper-marginalisation and the ‘othering’ of the banlieues causes their residents, particularly the youth, to become disaffected and wary of the state that has failed them.
In such a context, the relationship between the youth and the police is strained even outside periods of intense violence. Hostilities further increased in 2002, when former President Nicolas Sarkozy scrapped the neighbourhood policing plan, replacing the earlier service-oriented strategy with a more aggressive approach to policing. The situation worsened with the 2012 plan to initiate targeted policing operations in “security priority zones”, the majority of which coincided with neighbourhoods in the banlieues. As explained by sociologist Christian Mouhanna, “Police officers are viewed in the banlieues with more contempt than any other authoritative institution and police conduct is undoubtedly the main catalyst of riots.” The unempathetic and tyrannical nature of the police mars their daily interactions with the residents of the banlieue. In such a tense climate, the killing of a youth by the police serves as the trigger for protests, unleashing the frustrations of the marginalised.
The recent French protests have exposed the deep structural flaws within the police to the eyes of the world at large. One aspect of the police system that came under scrutiny is a 2017 law that empowers officers to fire on motorists fleeing traffic stops, even when officers are not in danger. This bill was passed in response to a series of terrorist attacks, most notably the November 2015 Paris attacks that claimed 131 lives. However, it has been heavily condemned by groups such as France’s Defender of Rights and the UN affiliated National Advisory Committee on Human Rights, who critique its vague wording and the lack of proper training and institutional accountability. Fatal shootings have increased sixfold since the bill was passed, with thirteen people in 2022 alone dying in shootings during traffic stops.
The identity check system is another area that has come under fire for leaving room for rampant abuse and racial profiling. French law mandates that individuals must submit to identity checks, empowering the police to detain a person for four hours under a procedure called “identity verification.” However, a report by the Human Rights Watch revealed that compared to white people, Black people were six times more likely to be stopped for identity checks, and Arab individuals eight times more likely. A 2008 survey by the Fundamental Rights Agency showed that of those who had been stopped for a check, 46% of Black people and 38% of Arabs said the stop involved a search. These physical searches can be invasive and traumatising, with children as young as fourteen being subject to pat-downs. Verbal abuse and taunts are also common, and any reaction may prompt officers to levy fines. These humiliating checks escalate the hostility between the suburban youth and the police, creating pent-up anger that erupts into mass conflict during suburban riots.
The culture of police impunity cultivated by vague laws bestowing a wide range of powers without any accountability is clearly counterproductive. However the attitude of those in power is one of denial and complacency, with France’s economy minister Bruno Le Maire flatly stating that it is “unacceptable” to say French police are racist. This fear of critical examination and reform is common to many in the government, with the Foreign Affairs Ministry also stating that “all accusations of racism or systemic discrimination by law enforcement are totally unfounded”.
Similarly the interior minister Darmamin has vehemently denied that fatal shootings at fleeing motorists increased following the 2017 law’s passing, despite studies proving otherwise. While President Macron has condemned the killing as “inexplicable and unforgivable”, his response to the protests itself has been lacking. Instead of taking this as an opportunity to push for policies to uplift the banlieues, he has blamed a familiar bogeyman, video games, for inciting violence among teenagers, and has threatened to cut off social media. Protests in France are thus not seen as an expression of the legitimate problems of the French people, but rather a blight to be suppressed, with police unions describing rioters as “vermin”, stating that “faced with these savage hordes, asking for calm is not enough, it must be imposed.”
Over the course of his tenure, Macron has faced numerous mass protests – the Gilets Jaunes Movement in 2018 and 2019, the pension protests in January 2023, and now, the Nahel Merzouk protests. These demonstrations have called into question the wealth disparity and status of the minorities in French society. Yet, despite the public’s constant appeals for change, Macron’s response has been one of heavy-handed repression. In both the yellow vest and pension protests, Macron let loose the military and police to squash dissent through disproportionate force, levied fines, imprisoned protestors after rushed trials, and passed widely unpopular laws paying no heed to the public’s demands.
Throughout his presidency, President Macron has pushed for economic growth; but his policies are targeted for the elite alone and leave behind the parts of France that have been marginalized for decades. The ‘President of the rich’ and his government are far too comfortable taking refuge behind a colour-blind rhetoric. Until they address the systemic discrimination that creates a wide gulf between the suburbs and the rest of France, this cycle of violence centred around the banlieues is unlikely to be broken.
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