“Tout le monde deteste la police!”—Everyone hates the police—was chanted at demonstrations and riots across France last week. The trigger was an event both enraging and depressingly familiar: the murder of an innocent 17-year-old Black kid, Nahel Merzouk. The teenager from Nanterre, in the western suburbs of Paris, was stopped by police for driving in a bus lane. Moments later, he was shot after being asked to pull out his licence.
The police lied about what happened, claiming that Nahel tried to run them over. But someone had filmed the murder on their phone and soon the footage was circulating. Both police officers drew their weapons and, despite facing no threat, one chose to shoot. Mounia, Nahel’s mother, summed it up when she said:
He saw an Arab face, a little kid, and wanted to take his life.
Riots erupted in Nanterre and other Paris suburbs, and in suburbs in other cities. The anger was palpable, thousands of young people saying that they would not let the police continue to kill and that Nahel would not die in vain. The police union responded by calling the protesters “vermin” and rallying their officers to restore the “republican order”. This meant arresting more than 1,000 people over three days. Among those arrested, the average age was 17.
This was rising of the banlieues—working-class, immigrant neighbourhoods in which poverty is high and police intimidation is constant. This is another France: by one measure just a few kilometres away from the centre of Paris, but in reality a world apart.
Banlieues populations are discriminated against economically and politically. The number of children from immigrant backgrounds in poverty is markedly higher than that for white children. And as is the case everywhere, the cost-of-living crisis is disproportionately hitting working-class people, particularly those of colour. In the banlieues, there has been a systematic underfunding of schools and public services, which puts paid to the idea that Republican France treats everyone equally. As a joint statement from French unions in response to Nahel’s murder put it:
How can we believe in equality when some neighbourhoods are left without public services, when they remain isolated because of a lack of accessible transport, doctors and local hospitals … These young people find themselves under social and geographical house arrest.
Many in the banlieues come from West Africa and North African Arab countries. The young men are twenty times more likely to be stopped by police than other citizens.
Under President Emanuele Macron, the police have become more militarised and gained more powers. A 2017 law giving cops more scope to shoot at drivers was an advance death warrant for Nahel. Since the law passed, police shootings of motorists have increased six-fold, according to French researchers who shared their findings with the New York Times. The police force is also thoroughly infiltrated by fascist ideas—well over half supported fascist presidential candidates such as Marine Le Pen or Éric Zemmour in the last election, according to Radio France polling.
The French ruling class says that France is colourblind, treating everyone equally regardless of race or religion. This is laughable given the extreme racial divisions in the country, and the deeply entrenched influence of the Catholic Church. But also, the history of France is a history of colonial conquest, of the denial of basic rights to colonial subjects and to successive waves of immigrants—many from predominantly Muslim countries.
In recent decades, the war on terror and the barbaric treatment of refugees throughout Europe have increased the state sanctioned Islamophobic repression. Each wave of migrants has been treated with hostility, leading to their concentration in the outskirts of major cities.
The riots were just the latest manifestation of the profound political alienation of the banlieues. These communities have not been integrated into French capitalism under the banner of multiculturalism, as in Australia, or through Tammany-hall style clientelism, as in the US. They are disproportionately poor, unemployed and targets of daily harassment and abuse. The combination of repression and abandonment leads inevitably to the sorts of political explosions seen last week.
Tragically, the French left has few roots in these communities, and is therefore unable to provide a political lead. The Communist Party, long hegemonic on the broad left, spent most of the twentieth century opposing anti-colonial movements in the French empire. It also accepted at face value the racism implicit in France’s so-called secularism, which has always been used to attack religious minorities. While the revolutionary left took principled stances against imperialism, they too failed to consistently defend the rights of Muslims to wear the hijab, to run for public office and so on.
The corporate media and the political right dismiss riots as mindless violence. Even sections of the left have condemned rioting in the past, criticising rioters for sabotaging their own cause and equating the violence of police with that of the oppressed. But this time, things have been different.
Partly because of the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, the French left has responded more sympathetically to this latest rebellion, with the more left-wing trade unions joining activists in denouncing the police and the state for its economic and political oppression of migrant working-class communities. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the left-wing La France Insoumise group, has also made good statements in response to the violence, insisting that there can be no peace without justice. This is a message that has been scrawled all over the walls of Paris in recent days.
As Martin Luther King said, riots are “the language of the unheard”. They reveal deep wells of anger and frustration, and though they are not the methods socialists promote, they are undeniably acts of collective political rebellion.
Yet France is deeply polarised. Despite the significant solidarity shown to Nahel’s family, the overall effect of the riots has been to strengthen the reactionary far right. Marine Le Pen seized the moment for a recruitment drive to her National Rally party, sending out a mass email valorising the police and calling for “order” to be imposed. Following the police union, Jordan Bardella, a party chief, called the protesters “savage hordes” and denounced immigration. A 30 June opinion poll showed that 39 percent of people supported Le Pen’s response—the highest level of support of any politician.
It is hard to predict what comes next. There is a widespread belief in the ruling class that the extreme alienation and misery of the banlieues must be alleviated to some extent. Macron has been relatively constrained in his rhetoric so far, balancing a desire to calm tensions while also strengthening the police.
But without a sustained response by the left and the union movement, it is hard to believe that justice will be served for Nahel, or for any of the many other victims of police violence and abuse. While it is positive that major unions have issued reasonable statements, talk is cheap when not backed by action. Only through a mass movement that unites the radical youth, the oppressed minorities and the power of organised labour, can the racism and exploitation inherent to French society be challenged.