France, 18 Years After...

Thierry Pech

4 mins - 3 de Julio de 2023, 12:30

Nahel, 17, is the 17th person to be shot dead by a French police officer for “refusing to obey” in the last 18 months. He was shot at point-blank range and without the officer who opened fire apparently claiming self-defence. A video of the scene immediately went viral on social media and in the press, sparking outrage and anger. Government officials, usually quick to defend law enforcement, immediately condemned this act as “inexcusable”. The courts immediately remanded the perpetrator in custody, but this has not been enough to restore calm. Nights of rioting are taking place in many French cities, with town halls set on fire, schools attacked, cars burnt, and shops looted.

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For most French people, these events are reminiscent of the “riots” of 2005, when two teenagers chased by police took refuge in an electrical substation and were electrocuted to death. Three weeks of violence followed, leading to the establishment of a state of emergency for the first time on French soil since the Algerian war. Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior and a hardliner, immediately exonerated the forces of law and order. And Dominique de Villepin, then Prime Minister, saw his hopes of succeeding Jacques Chirac as President dashed: two years later, it was Nicolas Sarkozy who was elected Head of State and promised to “clean up” the working-class neighbourhoods of the large urban suburbs.

Eighteen years later, nothing has changed, if not worse. The suburbs of the big cities are still home to neglected neighbourhoods where unemployment and poverty are endemic. Those families who can, leave; those who stay are joined by even poorer newcomers. A recent study by Terra Nova shows, based on an analysis of the bank accounts of thousands of residents in these neighbourhoods, that 80% of individuals had consumed 80% of their resources by the 15th of the month. Younger residents have a poisoned relationship with institutions. At school, they experience mostly failure. As for the police, they do not see them as a protective force, but as a hostile institution that carries out useless identity checks and humiliates them.

The situation has also worsened for the police. Nicolas Sarkozy’s promises on security and his condemnation of “community policing” have encouraged officers to adopt an authoritarian approach to problems. Police unions themselves have continued to radicalise, demanding more offensive equipment and more legal cover; in 2017, for example, the law gave them greater freedom to open fire in case of refusal to obey. In police missions, de-escalation strategies have given way to strategies of direct confrontation that have claimed many victims in the ranks of the protesters, notably during the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement. In 20 years, it can be said that relations between police and citizens have deteriorated profoundly, adding a form of civic and political rupture to an incandescent social issue.

Whether public opinion will feel sympathy for the victims or condemn the disorder is impossible to discern at this stage. But it is likely that the strongest inclination will again be that of fear. If so, these events will inflate the sails of the radical right: while Les Républicains are once again calling for a state of emergency, Eric Zemmour is already talking of a revolt of “foreign enclaves” and those close to Marine Le Pen of “race riots”. Years of “crazy immigration” are being blamed and the debate is shifting from police practices and integration to border management. If the government were to succumb to these conservative tensions, it would undoubtedly perpetuate the vicious circle we have been in for more than twenty years and pave the way for future unrest.
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