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French Legacies of Civil Unrest

By Bailey Meyers

The killing of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old boy of Moroccan-Algerian descent, at a traffic stop by police in a suburb of Paris, has resonated throughout France with unrest and resounding political implications.

France has a long history of political unrest, just as it has a long history of colonization and domestic racism. During the French Revolution, which ended with the institution of a republic replacing the existing monarchy in 1799, protests were driven by the mantra of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and thousands of dissidents staged large scale protests leading up to the execution of Louis XVI. Subsequent French Revolutions happened in 1830 and 1848, both in response to the French government’s abuses of power.

In May 1968, large scale student and worker protests broke out in response to the Vietnam War, the poor state of the French education system, and a lack of social and economic equality, leading to over a fifth of workers on strike and a temporary pause of the French government. These protests originated at the University of Nanterre, in the same suburb of Paris in which Nahel was shot.

In 2005, there were protests that resemble the situation today. After running from the police to avoid the lengthy questioning and holding often undergone by French youth of color, six of nine boys of African and North African descent were caught and questioned while three hid in a power substation. Two of the boys who hid were accidentally electrocuted and their deaths sparked protests calling for an end to harassment and oppression of low income, Muslim, and immigrant communities in France. Nearly 3,000 cars were burned in riots across France and the government declared a state of emergency lasting three months.

Since Nahel’s death on 27 June, protesters have hit the streets, calling for justice while rioting and clashing with police officers. Like France’s historical revolutions, these protests and riots have a political slant. The unjust killing of Nahel has restarted the conversation around systemic racism in France, as well as the opportunities available to immigrant youth.

The video of the officer shooting Nahel has gone viral, reaching populations around the world, and it does not accord with the officer’s report, which claimed the boy was going to run him over. This tragedy was not in isolation, however, and thirteen people were shot at French traffic stops in the past year.

Populations living in the banlieue, or suburbs of Paris, are largely composed of immigrants, many of them North African. After French colonialism stalled in North Africa and was met with strong anticolonial sentiment with large-scale resistance like the Algerian War (1954-1962), the French government pulled out of its former colonies.

France was one of the only European countries to encourage permanent immigration to Europe in the postwar period as part of reconstruction. This led to an influx of migrants in addition to those recruited to fight for France. By 1974, 1.5 million North African migrants lived in France and Belgium, with many living in subsidized urban housing. In 1974, however, policymakers began to restrict migration as the country faced economic downturn, and ethnic French began to reclaim the low skill jobs migrants had filled.

The urban housing stayed, and turned into banlieues as migrants from the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) continued to move into French urban centers in search of family reunification, higher pay, and greater opportunity than in their recovering postcolonial states. By creating barriers to immigration in the postcolonial period and building race into the psychogeography of its cities, France has created a long lasting environment for protest.

The Parisian banlieue is a ring around Paris proper, where prices drop and cops get less friendly. Low income populations of migrants cannot afford to live in the city, and they are not seen in the city because they have no reason to go to the center. Although gathering ethnic data is illegal in France, Maghrebis still make up about half of all immigrants to France. And in the Île de France region surrounding Paris, 37% of children under 20 have at least one immigrant parent. As such, the banlieues have become stark reminders of a colonial past, from which colonized populations have never fully recovered. Prejudice, poverty, pervasive police presence, and poor urban planning continue to keep French citizens of North African origin from becoming integrated and appreciated in mainstream French society.

This is the “we” that Samba Seck, a transportation worker from the banlieue Clichy-sous-Bois, speaks to while quoted by the AP: “Nahel’s story is the lighter that ignited the gas. Hopeless young people were waiting for it. We lack housing and jobs, and when we have (jobs), our wages are too low.” Seck is speaking to the condition of the banlieue. The suburbs give officers the leeway to question who they please and trap low income communities with lack of opportunity.

In the same article from the AP, Nahel’s mother is quoted as saying, “He saw a little Arab-looking kid, he wanted to take his life,” in reference to the officer who killed her son. Running in parallel to many chilling events worldwide like the murder of George Floyd, this tragedy appears to be yet another example of senseless abuse of power rooted in racism. Like in the US, laying bare the unjustness of a system which allows officers to use force depending on their personal feelings has resonated throughout the world. Before Nahel’s death, in April, over 260,000 people signed an unsuccessful petition to the National Assembly to ban a specialized urban violence police brigade.

In the days since Nahel’s death, protests have occurred across France and its overseas territories including French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion, underscoring the protests’ ties to France’s colonial history and the anticolonial bent they have taken.

Mayors of the banlieues around Paris have noted that the protests today may be stronger and more violent because the urban populations driving the demonstrations are even poorer and with less social mobility than they had in 2005. In a statement to Le Monde, Sébastien Delavoux, spokesperson for the CGT collective of departmental fire and rescue services, said, "I experienced 2005 and I immediately understood that the situation was worse, because very quickly there were fires in public buildings, with no warm-up period. These were kids, highly coordinated, with inexhaustible stocks of fireworks. Services were breaking down." In short, the severity of the protests have matched the stuckness that protesters feel. Given France’s reluctance to provide adequate support for low income and minority citizens, as well as rising anti-immigrant rhetoric in political discourse across Europe and the world, continued protests could be expected. These demonstrations say that the issues of police harassment and socioeconomic entrenchment brought up in 2005 are still relevant, and they have still not been addressed.

It is also important to not overstate the political motivation behind the riots. There were no large-scale calls for a specific reform or policy, and there was no coordinated messaging and branding around the protests. They came following an unjust police killing which resonated with many, but the riots were uncoordinated, took a life of their own, and were immediately violent and destructive, which acted more as an affirmation of critics’ racist claims than a show of political unity and strength.

Yet, despite their crassness and violence, it is partly for their spectacle of the riots that the protests have proliferated and had a tangible effect on the French government. On 30 June, President Macron announced that he would be staying back from a scheduled trip to Germany to deal with the issue, and on the same day the United Nations Human Rights Office issued a statement urging France to seriously address “deep-rooted issues of racism and racial discrimination” within law enforcement agencies.

While protests and calls for reform often appear unmerited and brash in the present, with hindsight one can see that they are pleas for recognition and rectification of past wrongs. Subjects of the French Monarchy beheaded their king because they bore the brunt of unfair politics which kept them poor and subservient to the crown. Today, subjects of the French Republic are faced with a racist colonial legacy which continues to seep into political speech and their daily lives, and they are using arson and fireworks to shed light on their situation. France has gone through countless demonstrations, strikes, and protests throughout history, and has a culture built out of and around revolution.

In just the time between 2005 and Nahel’s murder, there have been youth protests over labor deregulation in 2006, the 2007 Villiers-le-Bel riots following the death of teens involved with police, protests and strikes 2007-2009 at universities, the 2013 Trappes riots after another police altercation with French muslims, a 2016 taxi driver strike, the 2016 nuit debout protests over labor reforms, anti-police protests in 2017 after another racialized incident between an officer and a black man, the Yellow Vests Protests in 2018 over wealth disparity and taxes, and protests in 2023 over planned pension reform. It is embedded in French culture to resist unjust treatment, and to do it loudly.

Nahel’s death at the hands of the police officer has created a clamor on the political right as well as left. While supporters of the protests on the left may focus on France’s failure to address the needs of its low income and immigrant populations, critics on the right have identified immigrant populations as parasites to the health and culture of the country. Marine Le Pen, a French political figure often likened to Donald Trump in the United States, responded to the riots by claiming, “We suffer an immigration that is totally anarchic,” and blaming “an ultra-majority of youth who are foreign or of foreign origin.” Her anti-immigrant and pro-police sentiment is echoed by many on the French far right, with donations to a crowdfunding campaign for the family of the officer totalling over 1.5 million euros.

By contrast, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin stressed that only 10% of rioters were foreigners. Working from his centrist position, Macron has maintained a diplomatic front and expressed criticism of the police in support of Nahel and his family (calling the shooting “inexplicable and inexcusable”), criticized violent rioting, blamed social media for the violence shown by protesters, and deployed riot police equipped with tear gas and rubber bullets. Macron is trying to appeal to both sides of the aisle, but must remain cognizant that generalizations about violent protesters as immigrants have a racist tinge, the very prejudice they are fighting against. While deploying officers to quell riots is completely reasonable, the French far right tends to focus on stripping citizenship and deportation. The French President must guard himself from ideological slippage towards the right as he tries to maintain a voter base while attempting to address the persistent concerns of protesters around systemic racism and law enforcement.

Contrary to Le Pen’s approach of putting native French ahead of “foreigners” in line for social services, Macron needs to ratchet up services for at-risk communities. So far, France’s official policy of racial colorblindness (including the lack of official statistics on race) has led to systemic lack of resources for disadvantaged communities, entrenching many descendants of migrants in the banlieue while keeping politics largely white and ethnically French in the city proper.

In the aftermath of Nahel’s murder, France’s political divide was made murky, as protesters brought festering anger, la haine, to the streets. Something snapped when the cop killed the boy, but the protests are not only for him. Violence has emerged from within the protests as a consequence of lack of mobility for marginalized groups.

Many people of all political affiliations claim that the rioting is inexcusable. For residents of the banlieue, escape to a more prosperous life has seemed impossible; the only way out is to push back. Compounding issues of racism, classism, police brutality, and problematic French politics have worsened in recent years. Its many factors and a lack of progress which has led to the protests, even if the rioters’ motivations are not immediately clear and appear to work against their cause, affirming racialized judgements. But the French have never fallen in line, and, as French citizens, participants in the protests are carrying on France’s legacy of radical resistance.


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