Freedom News

The roots of the French riots

The comparisons between the revolts which have shaken France since the police murder of a 17-year-old on Tuesday 27th June and those which shook France in 2005 are unavoidable. In 2005 two teenagers, Zyed and Bouna, were chased into an electricity bunker in the eastern suburbs of Paris where were both electrocuted to death. Three weeks of rioting followed in France, the youth angry about the police state, angry about racism, angry about the relegation of the cities. Eighteen years later, even if the media, society and political culture have evolved, not much seemed to have changed in the relationship between young people of colour and the police. On Monday 3rd July, with fires still smouldering in cities across the country, a news announcer calmly announced that “this three-day period of rioting” had done more damage than the rioters were able to do in three whole weeks 2005. There is something sly and mediatic in this turn of phrase – as if the state has decided – “here, you’ve had your fun for three days, there will not be a fourth”.

And sure enough, in the following week of relative calm, after the excesses of the previous weekend, the RAID (the elite tactical unit who have been deployed in several regions) were relaxing with their assault rifles leaning on their armoured vehicles, public transport was continuing to be stopped at 9pm, the electric bikes and scooters have still been turned off, the finger pointing had begun in the media with families (most often mothers) being threatened to have their benefits cut if their children were involved. As if that all wasn’t enough to feed this rotten climate, most importantly, courtrooms around the country are doing overtime sentencing dozens of young people to brutal jail sentences. The crimes being punished in these courtrooms are not for violence against the police, not for possessions of weapons, but simply crimes against capital. Some of the sentences are shocking – 16 years old, no criminal record, 18 months in prison for stealing a designer pair of boxer shorts. Another young woman, one year for taking a shoe (not even a pair!) from a Footlocker which had been looted hours before. The message from the state is crystal clear – if you were involved in any way, you will be punished, if you “let” your children be involved, you will be punished. That the real victims in this are the poor hard-working capitalists who own Sephora and JD Sports, and not the dozens of black and Arab teenagers being stopped and searched, harassed, and humiliated on a weekly basis, endlessly reminded of how little the state cares about them.

The uprisings were sparked by the murder of a 17-year-old, Nahel, who was shot in the chest at point blank range in a traffic control in the western suburb of Paris on Tuesday 27th June. In the 24 hours following his murder, one police union tweeted their congratulations to the murderer to have “neutralised” a “young criminal” and another tweeted about the frustration of the police having to struggle against “savage hordes”. The gap that we usually see in heavily policed states between the “violence-done-to-people-of-colour-by-cops” and “what-those-cops-have-to-say-about-it”, is steadily closing in France. In the past, the police in France had to be a lot more careful about their reasons for killing but in 2017 a law for public security was passed giving them the right to use their guns in cases where a person will not comply to a traffic control, removing their obligation to even justify their use of their firearms as self-defence.

Two days before Nahel was murdered, they killed another teenager, Alhoussein, in another refusal to comply with a traffic stop. The lack of footage of this murder (the cops body camera was “not functioning”) mean that it received almost no media coverage. In the uprising over the weekend, yet another, Mohamed, was killed by a flash ball shot in the thorax. Cause of death ruled to be a heart attack. Since 1977, 489 people have been shot to death by the French police with more than half of them being unarmed. According to new sources, the police killed upwards of 40 people in 2021 and 2022 alone. This is clearly, statistically, getting worse. The fact that France, in its endless striving “against” discrimination, doesn’t collect any ethnic statistics or data, means we can’t comment on the race of these victims of police violence, but their names tell another story, one closely linked with France’s colonial past : Zyed, Bouna, Adama, Zineb, Alhoussein, Nahel, Mohammed, to name just a few.

In Marseille, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday were the three big days. Thousands of teenagers ran riot in the city centre on Thursday night. On the Friday, there was a huge call for a demo in the Old Port at 8pm. The police announced a formal ban on the demo and cut all public transport from 6pm, even turning off the electric scooters and bikes that so many teenagers use to get around the city. But Marseille remains one of the few big French cities where the centre has stayed working class and remains full of people of colour. So as much as the state wanted to keep the youth in the suburbs, the not yet completed gentrification of Marseille made this impossible. But for those who didn’t make it into the city centre, the uprisings also swept through far northern suburbs, with looting and burning, and fierce repression through the weekend.

In the centre, the big shopping streets all got smashed up, the shopping centres too. Barricades burned, a gun shop got broken in to, and people pelted the cops with rocks and fireworks. Late into the evening on Friday, the state decided it had had enough, and sent in the RAID, who shot beanbag pellets out of shotgun style shells (the same weapons deployed against BLM in the US) and pointed their rifles at passers by, flanked by their black armoured vehicles. There were nearly 100 arrests on Saturday night alone.

The French post-war project of refusing to work on integration and insisting on assimilation has failed, is failing, will go on to fail. The more that the French state wage a deep culture war against youth of colour and against Muslims more generally, the more that Muslim youth feel on the outside of society, and the more that wearing a hijab (for example) becomes a symbol of resistance and not, as the state and media would try to have us think, one of submission. This ghettoisation intensifies when the school system takes these kids in at 3 years old. During a recent visit to Marseille, Macron talked about his plan to bring that age even lower. The logic is that the more they can keep kids away from their poor immigrant parents, and the more they can keep them in a tightly controlled, ideologically dogmatic “neutral space”, the better the State can protect these kids from the vision of history and society that they can receive at home. From the truth that their parents can tell them. But these kids are not stupid. The endless conflicts of loyalty they are forced into between school and family, between society and tradition, between la Republique and le bled, serve only to deepen the complete relegation of young black and Arab kids in France. In the media flurry following the events of the previous week, the usual liberal voices have been moaning about the property damage done, asking why these young people would destroy their own neighbourhoods, their own libraries, their own streets etc. As one person pointed out on twitter, these neighbourhoods, these libraries, and these streets don’t belong to these kids, nothing does.

A combination of an incredibly acute stigmatisation and social relegation of black and Arab teenagers and an increasingly gung-ho and heavily armed police force emboldened by endless new laws increasing their power, is a deadly cocktail. The visibility to both sides of the problem given by social media and the increasing presence of alternative media outlets in France (compared to the uprisings of 2005) mean that the France can no longer hide the depth of their problems from their neighbours, but also that the youth today are better placed than ever to understand just how bad it is here. From the repression of the Gilets Jaunes, the global security law aiming to criminalise filming and diffusing images of police violence, the use of 49.3 to pass the pension reforms and now what will be a huge deployment of force to crush the revolts and punish those involved, Macron’s second term is clearly one marked by a strong authoritarian bent and a strong reliance on an arrogant, over armed and unaccountable police force.

Justice for Nahel! Justice for Alhoussein! Justice for Mohamed!

~ L Munro (@pststhr)

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