Just when France seemed to be calming down after a winter of political crisis and protests against pension reforms, tensions flared up again, reopening an old wound that never seems to fully heal. The wound is in that part of French society called the banlieue – the multicultural and impoverished city suburbs populated by generations of immigrants from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa. Often treated as second-class citizens, they harbor a simmering resentment towards French institutions, especially the police.
When a 17-year-old was shot to death by a traffic cop in Nanterre, a city of 93,000 in the western suburbs of Paris, the banlieues erupted. The killing was recorded on video – all of France and half the world have seen it. Approximately 40,000 police officers were deployed on June 29 to contain a third night of rioting all over the country.
According to France’s Ministry of the Interior, law enforcement authorities arrested 875 people and 249 police officers sustained injuries. The ministry reported attacks on 79 police stations and 119 public buildings, including 34 town halls and 28 schools. Le Monde reported that for the first time, the riots extended to the heart of Paris where looters emptied a Nike and a Zara store. Citing security reasons, French authorities announced the suspension of all public transportation from 7:00-9:00 pm in Marseille, Lyon, and Île-de-France, where Paris is located.
France looks like a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown – socially and politically. President Emmanuel Macron has called for an end to the violence, and will meet for the second day in a row on Friday with a Cabinet-level crisis team. The left-wing opposition has vehemently pushed back on Macron, declaring that it’s not just calm but justice that’s needed. Meanwhile, the far-right seeks to cast itself as the guardian of law and order, and wants a state of emergency to be declared.
“Let it burn,” said Lena Benahmed, a 22-year-old student of Tunisian origin with blonde hair and blue eyes. She has never experienced racism herself and says everything is going great for her. Nonetheless, she said, “Burn it all down.”
Benhamed went with a friend to a protest march in Nanterre on June 29. It was led by the mother of Nahel, the teenager who was shot by police two days earlier. Nahel was driving a Mercedes when police ordered him to stop. Instead, Nahel, the only son of a single mother and a good kid, his friends say, stepped on the accelerator. The officer fired. He has been charged with voluntary manslaughter and is currently in jail.
“We’re here at this demonstration to support the family,” said Benhamed. “But at night, we will set fire to the system – it’s the only way.”
Despite being organized with just one day’s notice and in a small city instead of downtown Paris, the demonstration during working hours managed to draw an impressive crowd of 6,200 people. The march concluded with clashes between protesters and the police.
“We’ll keep on burning”
“If they keep it up, so will we,” said Diarra, an 18-year-old young man who went to the demonstration with his friend, Elomri. Born and raised in France, both have African roots. Diarra says “they” are the police, the authorities, the powers that be who repress the people of the banlieue. “If they keep killing our brothers, we’ll keep on burning,” said Elomri.
France has never shied away from political violence – street barricades have long been part of the Republic’s revolutionary heritage. But cries of outrage are now ringing in the halls of the French Parliament. Radical leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said, “The watchdogs demand peace. We demand justice.” Green Party leader Marine Tondelier admonished, “Peace is not decreed, it is built.”
Meanwhile, far-right leader Marine Le Pen is accusing the left of “inciting disorder and violence,” and says that Macron is shirking his constitutional responsibilities “out of fear of more rioting, which only encourages them.”
It’s a political divide that Macron is trying to carefully navigate. While he sympathizes with Nahel’s family and understands the anger over his death, he must avoid throwing the police under the bus. The country’s police forces claim to be exhausted from non-stop crises – terrorist attacks, weekly “yellow vest” protests, demonstrations over pension reforms and more.
“The death of a young man should be a cause for peaceful reflection,” said the president on June 29. “Instead we see violent attacks on police stations, schools and city halls. These are attacks on our institutions and our Republic, and it’s absolutely unjustifiable.”
“Some people are taking advantage of the situation to destroy and steal – this is wrong,” said Nadir Kahia of the Gennevilliers Banlieue Plus association, a municipality north of Paris that was hit hard by riots this week. “The banlieues have been simmering for 40 years,” he said. “In the 1960s and 1970s, public housing projects were built in response to an economic problem – the need for immigrant labor. A lot of people were invited in and these people had children, French children. But they don’t feel French because this country has never treated them as such. We haven’t solved basic problems of education, housing, inequality, discrimination and police violence.”
Policing is a main cause of the discord. A 2020 report from the French government ombudsman indicated that 80% of “youth perceived as black or Arab” reported being stopped by the police or law enforcement officers between 2012 and 2017, compared to 16% for the rest of the population.
France has also been singled out repeatedly by NGOs and international human rights organizations like the Council of Europe, for allegations of excessive force by police. The country must contend with a two-headed monster: a trigger-happy police force and a large group of citizens who readily resort to violence (or condone it) and are quick to confront authorities in everyday situations.
Now there is talk about revising the 2017 law that allows use of force in circumstances that don’t strictly qualify as self-defense. The law states, “[Use of weapons] is permitted when [agents] are unable to stop a driver of a vehicle, boat or other means of transportation who fails to comply with a halt order, and when the occupants are likely to threaten the safety and lives [of agents] and others while escaping.”
Since the law took effect, sociologist and author Sebastian Roché says the number of deaths from police shootings has increased when a driver refuses to stop. “In June alone, there have been two fatal shootings,” says Roché. “It’s not Brazil, but it’s a significant number for a Western democracy.”
At the Nanterre protest, a woman told us, “We trust in our institutions.” The 54-year-old woman’s name is Zahera Bensaad, and she emigrated from Algeria to France 30 years ago. She has three children ranging in age from 17 to 28. “The death penalty was abolished long ago, but it’s now used to punish our young people simply for not having a driver’s license,” she said. But Bensaad still rejects violence as the answer, and before the protest march started, she said she hoped that Nahel’s mother would make a plea for calm. It didn’t happen. “Violence won’t bring her son back. If this continues, it will turn into guerrilla warfare.”
The scenes this week evoked the 2005 uprising sparked by the deaths of two young people pursued by the police and lasted for three weeks. Those days haunt leaders on all sides who are terrified of a repeat. Perhaps that’s what will happen, but remakes are never exactly the same as the originals. A fuse has been lit, and nobody knows when or how it will end.
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