Protests in Paris, France, June 30, 2023 (Photo: AP)
July is significant in French history; the fall of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution. The end of June and July this year was also marked by riots across France for reasons that would have been understood in 1789, economic and social inequality and brutality by those responsible for law and order—but the additional element this year was the racial question pertaining to immigration and religion.
The clashes first erupted on June 27 in a Paris suburb, Nanterre, when Nahel, a 17-year-old Algerian-origin teenager driving a sports car without a licence, was shot by a policeman, the second victim this year killed by traffic police after stopping. A 2017 law allows French traffic police to shoot people failing to stop if they pose danger; last year,13 people were killed by police for non-compliance.
This incident set off days of tumult in more than 220 urban localities, with government buildings, city halls, libraries, banks, the metro system, shops, schools, and police stations attacked, and vehicles torched at a cost of millions of Euros. More than 4,000 were arrested with an average age of 17 and hundreds of police and firefighters were injured. Two thousand five hundred buildings were damaged. The unrest has been unprecedented in terms of scale and intensity.
The opposing viewpoints are predictable. The mayor of Neuilly-sur-Marne said, “It’s a problem of authority because these [rioters]—from the footage, they appear to be teenagers, perhaps 14-16 years old—don’t fear justice. [They] may go to court, but they come back home a few hours after trial, simply because we don’t have enough places in jail. We cannot support this kind of weakness from the state.” But a 23-year-old Muslim teacher says of the anger, “It always falls on the same people. If you’re Black or Arab, a gun is pulled and shots fired without thinking. When it’s a white person, they think twice before shooting or even giving a fine.” As Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Statements by human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch call on France to address systematic discrimination and ethnic profiling during identity checks, but the French from President Macron downwards robustly reject any charge of institutional racism. Police brutality is only part of the story; the rest is about the divisions these events expose within France. The country is locked in an official equality that neglects the experiences of many minorities, and the continuing need for justice.
Emmanuel Macron, who promised a “Jupiterian” presidency when he took over, responded with a massive police presence to guarantee a “return to calm”. His weak political position requires allies to govern, sometimes from the right, at other times, from the centre-left, but governing the polarised nation has become virtually impossible. He hoped to re-industrialise France, improve working conditions and finalise a new immigration bill; he championed European sovereignty and independence in the economy, energy, and defence. But his tenure faced a succession of huge protests starting with the Yellow Vest movement against fuel tax in 2018, and against pension reform this year. An increasing proportion of the population rejects institutions as part of a broader criticism of “a social order that involves inequalities” (Luc Rouban at the National Centre for Scientific Research). Macron has still four years to serve, while rightist Marine Le Pen is emerging as the main political opposition. Rightwing parties link the most intense and widespread riots France has seen since 2005 to mass migration and demand curbs on new arrivals.
The riots reveal the depth of anger and alienation among many French citizens. The outward display of religion has seeped into schools, contravening the French principle of strict secularism in the public space. Politicians say there are no second-class citizens, but many raise questions regarding immigrants, especially why third and fourth-generation immigrants have failed to integrate into society. The answer may lie within; media outlets and political elites make disparaging statements about Muslims in France with latent racism and Islamophobia. Many French do not consider even second or third-generation immigrants as full citizens, and others advocate revoking a bilateral treaty that makes it easier for Algerians to emigrate to France. A crowdfunding campaign raised Euro 1.6m for the policeman who killed Nahel and has become another divisive issue.
Race is as difficult an issue in France as in other European nations that became multi-ethnic after World War II due to decolonisation in Africa and Asia, while issues of ethnic and racial identity from World War ll also continue to haunt France. The state is officially colourblind, with equality for all, but in the suburbs that experience police brutality and discrimination, that argument fails to convince ethnically diverse residents. Elected representatives, associations, churches and mosques, social workers, and teachers admit their powerlessness. At each riot, politicians assume established positions: the right denounces the violence, the deprived neighbourhoods, and police victims; the left condemns injustice and promises social policies. But politicians are never heard in those localities where the complaint is that “when Macron comes, he makes announcements, not to listen to us.”
Efforts have been made to improve housing and facilities for the poor. There are social centres, schools, colleges, and public transportation, but the social and cultural diversity of these suburbs has deteriorated. The residents are usually financially insecure, being immigrants or descendants of immigrants. When the opportunity arises, those who can leave the <banlieues> do so, to be replaced by even poorer residents. Thus, while the built environment is improving, people still feel excluded because of their origins, culture, or religion. The state is then reduced to authorised violence and young people to delinquency. The police are judged to be racist because every young person is a suspect, while the youth hate the police, fuelling police violence.
A new element is the rise of the right. Racist accounts of the uprisings are spreading that speak of the dangers of immigration, and this will be reflected at the ballot box. Another feature is the paralysis of the political left. It denounces injustice and sometimes supports the riots, but does not have any political solution other than police reform. Arrangements meanwhile continue for Bastille Day festivities, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as chief guest. He will be welcomed because India is a big purchaser but will find his host Macron in reduced circumstances, like other European leaders after the Ukraine War. For riot-prone France, another major deadline looms: the 2024 Summer Olympics.