Opinion

France burns in the heat of civil violence

REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES - Los manifestantes chocan con la policía, tras la muerte de Nahel, un adolescente de 17 años asesinado por un policía francés durante una parada de tráfico, en Nanterre, suburbio de París, Francia, el 30 de junio de 2023
photo_camera REUTERS/GONZALO FUENTES - Protesters clash with police, following the death of Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French policeman during a traffic stop, in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris, France June 30, 2023

President Macron is on the ropes. The convulsed France, cradle of social revolts that in several centuries have provoked changes of political significance, continues to roar fiercely with violent and massive protests that end up turning the streets of the main cities of the Gallic country into veritable battlefields.

No one understands how the government in the Elys√©e can have such a capacity for resistance. If one were to extrapolate the magnitude of the protests and their harshness to another country, not a few would speak of a failed state or a government that has collapsed because it is unpopular. 

The focus of the riots are the same neighbourhoods that once united students and workers to fight for improved social rights for the most disadvantaged classes in the massive protests of 1968 that lasted from May to June and ended up shattering Charles de Gaulle's government.

The echo of discontent then emerged in the "bidonvilles" (slums) that were then spreading to the outskirts of the French capital and other cities, especially the more industrial ones. 

One of the most populated "bidonvilles" from the mid-1950s was Nanterre, which proliferated by welcoming mainly Algerian and North African immigrants who came to France to try their luck; many came to work in the construction sector as labourers. 

It was precisely the public University of Nanterre that was at the origin of the protests that shook the whole of France in 1968 after several students were arrested for protesting for peace in Vietnam. The fuse was lit all over the country, with mass strikes, high schools taken over and millions of people shouting for a fairer world, as well as slogans against capitalism and imperialism. 

President de Gaulle, overwhelmed by a paralysed country, called an early general election in June of that year, and only then did the people return home.

Fifty-five years later, Nanterre is once again the focus of the anger of a certain part of the population, following the murder of the 17-year-old Nahel Merzou, born in France but the son of Algerian immigrants. The student was stopped at a police checkpoint in the west of the town and the young man refused to pull over because he was a minor without a driving licence; after speeding, the policeman shot him in the face and killed him. 

The boy's mother believes the policeman shot him because of his African facial features and announced that she would join protests calling for justice in a country where xenophobia and racial discrimination persist.

Nahel was not a criminal, nor was he wanted for justice. According to Agence France Press he intended to enter the University of Suresnes because he wanted to be an electrician and played rugby for the Pirates of Nanterre. He was not linked to drugs. 

"Nahel used rugby to get ahead and had the will to fit in socially and professionally. He was a sportsman who had no links, neither with drugs nor with delinquency," Jeff Puech, president of Ovale Citoyen, told Radio France Internationale.

The family of the murdered young man is asking through their lawyer that the policeman be tried for murder and not manslaughter, in order to get the maximum criminal punishment. 

From that Nanterre rekindled the flame that has once again set France on fire socially. It is no longer the Nanterre described as a slum with makeshift cardboard and wooden shacks where men came from various parts of Africa, looking for work, then brought their wives and settled a family. This is not the Nanterre of the 14,000 inhabitants of the mid-1960s; it is now a suburb that forms part of the so-called "banlieue" (periphery) with 93,500 inhabitants. 

It is in the Ile-de-France region, located in the department of Hauts-de-Seine; politicians refer to it as the "red belt" because it is traditionally and almost lifelong communist. However, it is home to an important financial centre, as it includes part of the La Défense district.

Angry demonstrations

During the presidency of Jacques Chirac, in 2005 France experienced a period of strong protests full of vandalism after the death of two young Muslims, of African origin, while fleeing from the police in Clichy-Sous-Bois; a poor commune in the east of Paris.  At the time, Nicolas Sarkozy was interior minister and went so far as to say on television that the 17- and 15-year-olds, respectively, were "scum". They were electrocuted to death while fleeing from the police. 

The last months of 2005 saw daily protests with hundreds of cars burned and several fires set, with anger spreading to other French cities.

The Associated Press collected the testimonies of several families living in the slums and tried to find out why the protests were so full of hatred, bitterness and destructiveness against the French system. 

According to the French news agency, the protesters stated that the riots were actually a way of expressing frustration over unemployment and police harassment in the area. "One of the protesters claimed that people had taken to the streets to shout that they were marginalised in ghettos".

In the current events, the mob demanding justice for Nahel has already burned more than 6,000 vehicles since the start of the violent riots on Tuesday 27 July. And a total of 500 public buildings have been set ablaze. 

Paris is experiencing an unprecedented wave of cancellations because tourists do not want to be exposed to the closure of the metro, museums and restaurants because at nightfall the streets are at the mercy of hundreds of demonstrators. 

Interior Minister G√©rald Darmanin told Le Figaro that 176 people had been arrested in a single day of violence, while in the city of Avignon the crowd tried to set fire to a police station. 

While French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his condolences for Nahel's murder, in the face of the civilian situation, he is considering the need to shut down social media services during the evening in order to prevent the mob from organising via instant messaging services.

Macron has ordered an increased police deployment and under the Global Security Law, sponsored during his government and in force since the end of 2020, the recording, publication and circulation of videos of police actions on social networks, whether made by a journalist or a citizen, is prohibited.  It also facilitates the use of drones to identify troublemakers, electronic surveillance and cyber espionage.

UN advises action

This is not the first time this has happened and more attention needs to be paid to allegations of racism in France, UN human rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani advised.

The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) called on Macron for the country to "take into account its history of racism in policing" to avoid another police recklessness.

"This is a moment for the country to seriously address the deep problems of racism and discrimination in law enforcement. We also emphasise the importance of peaceful assembly. We call on the authorities to ensure the use of force and to always respect the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, non-discrimination, precaution and accountability," Shamdasani said from Geneva.

According to the latest figures released by France's police regulator, there were 37 deaths during police operations recorded in 2021; and ten were shot dead.

Within France, NGOs and other civil associations denounce the police action which they have come to equate with the brutality of policing in the United States, violating their own human rights. 

For human rights defenders, Macron's Global Security Law is a way of protecting police action and has contributed to an increase in complaints about the actions of police forces, especially against young immigrants. 

What is happening in France in the suburbs of the most important cities? Is it all the product of police brutality or is there a breeding ground in which various social, economic, cultural, racial and even political factors converge? 

In Pedro Gonz√°lez's opinion, the breeding ground is the dissatisfaction of the second, third and fourth generation immigrants who have arrived in France.

"Many are fully French. Some arrived in France in the 1960s with the Algerian war, and the current generations have inherited free schooling, republican education, and it turns out that they reject it. For me, this bias was evident in the most serious riots in 2005," says the founder of Euronews.

Gonz√°lez, who at the time was RTVE's correspondent in Paris, recalled that in the 2005 episodes, many immigrants felt a rejection of their own nationality and French identity to such an extent that "you don't know what they want". 

"There is no appreciation of left-wing or right-wing values. Rather, they do an accounting of their exploits by burning vehicles, setting fire to buildings, injuring and even killing people. To then upload all that on social networks; for me it's devastating", asks the founder of Canal 24 horas. 

Is there a certain sector of French social workers unhappy with the economic deterioration?

The cliché of social problems has already come to an end. In the last 20 years, the French government has spent 40 billion euros on social policies to benefit the so-called "banlieue". So this cliché no longer holds true, frankly. What is behind it is an absence of values, this is a new nihilism, they ignore what equality and fraternity are and want to attack freedom.

The most worrying thing, Gonz√°lez said, is that these generations then take refuge in extremist imams and thus encourage even more radical and violent ideas. 

The war of disinformation is also worrying...

The way to destroy a democracy is through disinformation. This is a new factor, there is a lot of disinformation in these incidents as in many others and those to come.  The Elcano Royal Institute recently gave some data: 60% of the disinformation we suffer from comes from Russian and Chinese artificial intelligence farms. And what they are trying to do is to destroy democracy. 

In Gonz√°lez's opinion, there is no reason to destroy cities with such ferocity; nothing justifies such viciousness against real estate, public roads, the destruction of private cars; not even, he adds, the government's action to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64. 

"And finally, I would like to highlight a point that is very revealing for me: when Professor Samuel Paty's head was cut off in October 2020, there was no riot or mass protest on the outskirts of Paris," he recalls with certainty.

This unfortunate event happened on 16 October of that year. Paty was a high school teacher who was murdered and beheaded in an act of Islamist terrorism; his head was displayed on Twitter. The murder was committed by an 18-year-old Russian refugee of Chechen origin who had become radicalised.