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On racism, & police violence in France
Understanding what happened to Nahel and what has followed
It wasn’t unprecedented. Nor is the rage and revolt that have followed.
By now, I suspect you’re aware of what transpired early in the morning on June 27. Or at the very least, you’ve seen the incendiary headlines. Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old boy of North African descent living in Nanterre, a suburb west of Paris, was shot to death by a police officer at point blank range during a traffic stop. He died shortly after being shot, despite attempts by paramedics to administer CPR.
The police officer initially claimed self-defense, that Nahel was going to run him and his colleague over with his vehicle and had there not been evidence to the contrary, that might have been the end of the story. But bystanders saw what happened and one of them filmed the incident and shared the video widely. In it, we see two police officers inspecting a yellow car on the Passage François-Arago after its driver initially refused to stop. This is a punishable offense: 3 months jail time, a 15,000€ fine, and the loss of half of the maximum number of points on a driver’s license. It is not punishable by death. One of officers, standing and leaning against the windshield, holds the driver at gunpoint. When the driver started up again, the policeman fired point-blank from the side of the vehicle. The car crashed into a pole a few dozen meters further on.
The unrest that followed in various suburbs across France, including the outskirts of Paris, was swift. And while I don’t agree with looting and torching businesses, schools, and cars, I understand why it happens. The long-simmering anger among disenfranchised communities in France, particularly among the youth, and hostility toward law enforcement are symptomatic of hypermarginalisation, among the worst in Europe— as researcher and lecturer Joseph Downing put it, “poor-quality housing and schooling combine with geographical isolation and racism” that makes it “virtually impossible for people to stand a chance at improving their circumstances.” These ongoing issues have never been properly addressed by leadership, not with previous governments and not with the Macron administration. They speak to the symptoms, never the sources of inequity. They call for calm, a return to normal— but what if the return to normal isn’t a good, livable state either?
We can trace violence and racism to the very beginning of the police force in France. We can draw lessons from the Paris Massacre of 1961, to Lyon in the 1990s, and to the Paris suburbs in 2005 with the shocking death of two teenagers, among countless examples of racially-based traffic stops and identity checks that Black and Arab men are 20 times more likely to face. Worse still, a law passed in 2017 makes it easier for police officers to use lethal force via firearms even in routine traffic stops. This isn’t merely an issue of economic disparity but institutional racism that the government (and, frankly, much of French society) vehemently rejects under the guise of color-blind universalism. That the French state does not collect data on race, ethnicity, and religion makes quantifying the discrimination that exists all the more challenging (it’s for this reason that I included a glossary of concepts, such as universalism/ France’s issues with racism, etc., in The New Parisienne because this particularity is key to understanding stories of discrimination and marginalization).
And yet, colonial rhetoric persists. A statement published by one of the French police unions refers to rioters, many of whom are people of color, as “savage hordes”, “violent minorities”, and “pests” — similar to the kinds of language used by former President Nicolas Sarkozy (when he was interior minister) to describe the rioters in 2005: “racailles” (thugs) that needed to be “pressure-washed from the suburbs”.
All of this made me think of the remarks by American political activist Kimberly Jones that went viral during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. “How Can We Win?” suggests the “game” is rigged. The individuals tasked with protecting people from minority and underprivileged communities are killing them. How can there be trust? Furthermore, how can you address crime in these communities without first tackling poverty? The turmoil in the U.S. is not the same as in France. But there are some overlaps in sentiment and in the need for treating the wound at its source that cannot be denied.
I’ve linked to several reports on this ongoing story for greater depth and context. But one particular comment from a (French) reader on a Washington Post piece encapsulates the problem well:
“One of the biggest challenges the French have in accepting their own racism is the belief that their republicanism and socio-political constructs like « laïcité » have truly made them color blind. Blind, yes: but regrettably to something they desperately still need to see.”
Riots in France: anything new since 2005? Olivier Galland, sociologist and research director at the CNRS
France has ignored racist police violence for decades. This uprising is the price of that denial. Rokhaya Diallo for The Guardian
Nanterre and the suburbs: the lid comes off. Joseph Downing for Social Europe.
How the killing of a teen fits into France’s history of police brutality. Washington Post
France is on fire (not a helpful title…). Harrison Stetler for the NYT.
Emeutes après la mort de Nahel: pourquoi les quartiers populaires défient les institutions? (Slate, en français)