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Why French are up in arms against police

17 July 2023 09:00 (UTC+04:00)
Why French are up in arms against police

On the esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, in Nanterre, hatred for the police is all over the walls. On June 27, a 17-year-old resident of this western suburb of Paris was shot dead by a police officer after being pulled over for a traffic stop, Azernews reports, citing a foreign media outlet.

Nahel Merzouk, who was of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was the 15th person killed in this way in France since the beginning of 2022, with most of the victims being Black, or of North African origin.

As is always the case in such situations, the officers involved tried to justify themselves by invoking self-defence. This time, however, the police story was almost instantly blown to pieces on social media by video footage captured by a passerby, which showed that Nahel had not put the officers’ lives at risk at any moment.

As the video of the killing went viral, it sparked moral outrage and within hours, clashes erupted in the most deprived areas of Nanterre, as well as in neighbouring Hauts-de-Seine and Seine-Saint-Denis.

Over the next seven days and nights, the uproar spread to 553 municipalities across the country. Nearly two decades after the 2005 riots, France witnessed another mass revolt in its banlieues suburbs, which threatened to engulf many city centres.

Postcolonial policing and its discontents

Chronic tensions between the police and the residents of underprivileged banlieues go a long way to explain the moral outrage sparked by Nahel’s death. French historians and sociologists have widely documented the post-colonial legacy informing police engagement with these subaltern populations, especially those of North African and sub-Saharan African ancestry.

During the colonial era, hundreds of thousands of North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans came for work to metropolitan France, where they were legally recognised as nationals but nonetheless treated as undesirable populations. This is how a heavy-handed style of policing — relying on identity checks and body searches, often on the basis of ethnic profiling — as well as various forms of police illegalities — disproportionate use of force, extra-legal beatings or even killings of immigrants known as ratonnades — became part of police routines.

This aggressive style of policing has endured after the populations from former French colonies were displaced from slums to so-called grands ensembles (large housing developments).

During the 1960s and 1970s, Nanterre was one of the emblematic sites of this peripheral urbanism. Here, the residents of a dozen shantytowns — most of them of Algerian origin — were relocated to housing blocks like the cité Pablo-Picasso, where Nahel Merzouk lived and which became a major battlefield after his death.

With its winding alleys twining around 18 towers famous for their curved façades painted in a dull sky blue, their windows in the shape of drops of water, this housing project designed by architect Emile Aillaud was emblematic of the new urbanism of the 1970s — not only for its aesthetic ambitions but also for its social concerns — the towers aimed to provide affordable but comfortable housing to populations who were long deprived of it.

Like many other, similar grands ensembles, the neighbourhood gradually fell into a state of decay over the following decades, as a result of several mutually reinforcing phenomena — the disengagement of the state from urban peripheries, the impoverishment of local institutions, the deindustrialisation of the country and the rise of mass unemployment, which resulted in a population of idle young men who became a prime target for police harassment.

Among the residents of such working class neighbourhoods, hostility towards the police is not restricted to these young men. I witnessed this hostility firsthand at the end of the memorial march for Nahel on June 29.

The well-attended march, led by Nahel’s mother, started peacefully. However, it was dispersed by tear-gas, which prompted clashes and incidents of rioting. The esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, at the border between Nanterre and the business district of La Défense, was one of the main battlegrounds.

For several hours, bands of young, face-covered men, threw projectiles at the police and resorted to looting and arson. At some point, a bank office was set on fire and, within minutes, the blaze threatened to engulf the entire building, including the apartments on the upper floor.

This prompted rioters, bystanders and reporters alike to shout or even throw stones at the residents of the building to warn them of the impending danger and convince them to evacuate. Two young men even scaled the building to carry the message directly.

When the police finally arrived on the scene, people shouted frantically at them, requesting them to do something for the residents of the building. Instead, police officers responded aggressively and, within seconds, started shooting rubber bullets indiscriminately.

This infuriated a group of young women, one of whom knew Nahel personally. In a fit of rage, Ines (not her real name) grabbed a can of coke and threw it at a police officer.

She missed, but the targeted officer jumped at her and tried to strip away her veil, leading to a mêlée between the young woman’s friends and the police.

Ines was arrested and was accused by the police officer she had a brawl with to have punched him in the face and neck. The police report, which the French online outlet Mediapart had access to, also claimed that the police had confronted a horde of at least a hundred black-clad looters and rioters.

Like other witnesses to the scene, I can attest that none of this was true. Once again, a video, shot by a reporter associated with the independent media outlet, Civicio, contradicted the police narrative.

This proved to be a key element for Ines’ defence, who was only sentenced to a few days of community service after the tribunal of Nanterre implicitly acknowledged that the police had lied and produced a fake testimony.

The proliferation of smartphones and commitment of street reporters — independent journalists or ordinary citizens documenting public demonstrations — to watch the watchmen have undoubtedly complicated the action of the French police over the past few years, while exposing some of its blatant malpractices.

Most incidents of police brutality and acts of humiliation towards the denizens of the banlieues remain below the radar, though. The most banal form of police harassment in underprivileged neighbourhoods comes in the form of identity checks — a deeply entrenched legacy of France’s postcolonial style of policing.

Various studies have confirmed the discriminatory nature of such identity checks — according to one of the most authoritative studies on the subject, young men identified as Black or Arab are 20 times more likely to be subjected to such controls.

At the higher end of the spectrum of police violence are police homicides justified as acts of self-defence. These killings have significantly increased since 2017 following the passage of a law allowing officers to open fire preventively, if they anticipate that the suspects or occupants of a vehicle are prone to cause them physical harm.

Following a series of attacks on the police, this reform was a response to the pressure of police unions, which has only increased over the past few years — a pressure which is all the more preoccupying since these unions have largely adopted the inflammatory rhetoric of the far-right by requesting an iron hand against the vermin of the banlieues to save the country from an impending civil war.

Bowing down to such police pressure, successive governments have provided law enforcement agencies with a virtual ‘license to kill’, say human rights activists. This is reflected in the fact that France currently has the highest number of police homicides by firearm in Europe — a number that has more than doubled between 2020 (12) and 2022 (26).

No justice, no peace

French authorities — and the population at large — initially seemed mesmerised by the audacity of the rioters, who circulated their ‘dingueries’ (crazy feats) over social media, especially Snapchat, and emulated each other.

Not only did peripheral localities fall under the control of rioters for several hours, the trouble also spilled to city centres. In Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Lyon and Strasbourg, gangs of looters and rioters, sometimes in broad daylight, targeted public buildings and commercial ventures.

It did not take long for the state to strike back.

On June 29, two days after Nahel’s death, the government announced that paramilitary, elite forces would be deployed across the country to quell the riots. These units, specialising in the fight against terrorism and organised crime, were equipped with heavier weapons than the ones used by the riot police — such as shotguns loaded with bean bags — and were accompanied by armoured vehicles. Their personnel, who are rarely deployed for law and order assignments, proved particularly brutal.

In Mont-Saint-Martin (in the département of Meurthe-et-Moselle, in the east of France), a 25-year-old fell into a coma after being hit by a bean bag round shot by the RAID — an elite unit of the police.

Although they were probably concerned that more deaths at the hands of the police could escalate an already tense situation, President Macron and his government decided to increase police presence in the streets.

On the night between June 30 and July 1, 45,000 men and women in blue were deployed across the country. This massive police presence was maintained the following night, which saw the first confirmed death at the hands of the police during the riots — in Marseille, a 27-year-old Uber deliverer of North-African origin was killed by a rubber bullet while filming a police arrest.

Regular law enforcement agencies were not the only ones vowing to bring back order to disturbed areas.

In Angers, Chambery and Lyon, far-right activists also took to the streets, allegedly to target rioters but essentially to harass any member of a visible minority. In Lorient, 30 men and women formed a ‘brigade anti-casseurs’ (anti-riots brigade) and arrested presumed offenders, handcuffed them and delivered them to the police after roughing them up.

Investigations by the local press later suggested that these were probably commandos from a nearby navy base. While these incidents remained relatively low-key, they showed the willingness of various sections of the French population to undertake law enforcement assignments, vigilante style.

This is not a new phenomenon: over the past few years, oppositional groups — environmental activists, in particular — have been the target of various brands of henchmen, linked to dominant agricultural unions, landowners, hunters or private guards employed by large corporations. Not only is law and order becoming an increasingly brutal affair in France, it is also becoming more plural, with both private specialists of violence and self-professed ‘law-abiding citizens’ claiming to play a part in it.

An intense judicial repression thus followed the riots. According to official figures released by the Ministry of Justice, 3,600 people were arrested during seven days and nights of rioting, including 1,149 minors. More than 60 per cent of those arrested had no criminal record and 1,122 will be prosecuted. By July 5, 585 had already been facing summary proceedings and 380 were sentenced to unsuspended imprisonment.

It is hard to believe that these strong-arm tactics will produce the appeasement that France needs so badly. On the contrary, they are bound to fuel the sense of injustice of underprivileged, racialised youths. They will also condemn this government and its successors to escalating levels of violence, as more moderate interlocutors are systematically being silenced. Sadly, France seems headed only for more trouble.

Laurent Gayer is a political scientist based at CERI-Sciences Po, Paris. He is the author of several books, including Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (Hurst, 2014) and Gunpoint Capitalism: Enforcing Corporate Order in Karachi (Hurst, forthcoming).

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