France Erupts … Again

1 July 2023

Bavure policière, the conventional journalistic euphemism for the unauthorized police violence that has so often triggered the kind of uncontrollable popular violence that France has witnessed for the past four days, hardly seems adequate to describe what happened in Nanterre. If eyewitness accounts are to be believed, the victim in this case was allegedly struck twice in the head with rifle butts before being shot dead by a police officer after a traffic stop. The shooter’s defense is that he had his weapon pointed at the young man’s leg but that the barrel lifted involuntarily when the car lurched forward. But the front-seat witness claims that the car didn’t lurch forward because the driver put his foot on the accelerator but rather that he involuntarily lifted his foot from the brake after bering stunned by the two blows to his head.

Whatever happened four nights ago in Nanterre has been lost in the ensuing disorder. There is rioting all over France. Reportedly, the police and gendarmes, some 45,000 of whom have been mobilized, including elite units not accustomed to this kind of police work, are not at all confident that they can control the situation. Armored vehicles have been sent in to quell the rioters in some places. Hundreds of police and who knows how many protesters have been wounded. The government has assembled a crisis council. A black deputy from La France Insoumise was struck on the head while attempting to demonstrate his solidarity with the protestors. A police union issued a statement referring to the protestors as “vermin” and echoing far-right politician Eric Zemmour’s claim that France was witnessing not rioting but the beginning of a civil war.

As in previous eruptions of violence in response to police misdeeds, the latest events have had the curious effect of personalizing France’s normally anonymous “visible minorities,” which are in fact largely invisible until a conflagration like this one burns their image into the national consciousness. Suddenly, everyone is speaking of Nahel: the events have taken on the first name of their victim, just as the 2005 riots brought all of France into intimate contact with the previously invisible Zyed and Bouna, who met their deaths after being chased by police into an electrical substation. Nahel, Zyed, Bouna: these are the French George Floyds and Michael Browns.

But of course this specious intimacy will be as fleeting as it was in 2005. Back then, everyone agreed that policing of the suburbs had to change, that police attitudes had to be corrected, that conditions in the banlieues needed to be improved. But nothing changed, and repeated lesser eruptions in response to other, similar incidents between then and now failed to remind leaders that they were and are sitting on a powder keg. In the meantime, President Macron rejected out of hand the ambitious Plan Borloo for the suburbs. Who knows if it would have made a difference? Probably not, but at least it would have provided the government with an alibi: We were trying, don’t blame us if it hasn’t yet yielded results. As it is, embarrassed leaders are left with no excuse and dependent on the soi-disant forces de l’ordre, many of whose members despise them and would prefer to see Le Pen in charge.

As for those forces de l’ordre, their aggressive tactics in both day-to-day community policing and control of demonstrations have been encouraged by reforms that government leaders have been willing to undertake, in contrast to the Borloo reform. I’m thinking in particular of the Loi Cazeneuve, enacted in 2015 in the wake of the Bataclan massacre, which gave police expanded authorization to use weapons if they felt “threatened,” whether by terrorists or motorists, demonstrators or anarchists. The rules of engagement were ill-defined, because at the time leaders shaken by the violence of terrorists felt the need to do something without thinking too much about how what they proposed doing might affect everyday life. We are now reaping the consequences and can only hope that it will end soon.


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  • Jeff Murray says:

    The government has done nothing about this situation since 2005!

  • bernard says:

    The severity of the riots and the looting and destruction which apparently already surpasses in 4 days the destructions of 15 days of rioting in 2005 is only likely to favor the election of extreme right Marine Le Pen in 2027 just like 2005 favored the election of Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. It is a remarkable achievement of President Macron who presented himself in 2017 as the candidate of bienveillance (well wishing !…) and has turned out as the President who constantly generates crisis and violence since 2017. This arguably is not exactly a success story for someone who always knows better than anyone else what needs to be done. And you were wondering why so many loath him nowadays…

    Many will complain (and they are right) about the total lack of relationship between protesting the outrageous killing of this young kid by a policeman and indiscriminate looting and violence as has been happening. This brings to mind the riots and massive looting that took place in Newark in 1967 following the assassination of MLK , with the looters apparently chanting: we will be back for the mule (they had a long memory). They were back in 1992 after Rodney King and again after George Floyd more recently just like the French rioters are back now after 2005 and will undoubtedly be back again in the future for the reasons you point out very well. Naturally, the immigrant rioters as they are described in the main media outlet have been as French as I on paper (and only on paper) for not one, not two, but for four of five generations… Some things are permanent.

  • Ebenezer Scrooge says:

    To put a faint gloss of optimism on Bernard’s comment, I live in Newark. We now refer to the riots as the “insurrection,” and the children of the rioters are pretty much in charge of the city. They’re doing a pretty good job, considering the level of corruption accepted as ordinary in New Jersey. Systemic oppression sometimes decreases.

  • Anonymous says:

    I write this at about 11:00 p.m., Mondaty, July 3:
    The riots still continue to dominate the news in France –with already over 5,000 arrests (mainly of minors from 14-17 years, old, or even younger); an estimate of a billion dollars of damage reported by insurance companies, and some 70-odd people arrested tonight, the search for solutions is still afoot.
    A fund for the family of the policeman who killed “Nahel” was set up by extreme-right propagandist Eric Zemour and an associate. It received 1.2M Euros in donations, adding fuel to the fire. As I write, President Macron is right now at the police headquarters of the 17th arrondissement of Paris, making amends with the police after he said the murdering policeman’s act was “completely inexcusable”.
    Right now, commentators are giving thanks that the police have killed no one in trying to bring some order to the neighborhoods where rioters have been looting and setting stores and cars on fire over the last week. Mayors have been personally attacked –one Mayor, a 70-ish man, actually stood in the street and defied rioters –even when one of them said “Kill him –it’s the Mayor!”. Another, a young “Republicain” party mayor was in his office at 1:00 a.m., when rioters in a stolen car tried to set fire to his house while his wife and children slept. His wife broke her leg trying to escape and her children suffered minor injuries.
    Marseille is probably the worst of all the places where violence took over the streets: there was hand-to-hand combat with the police there for several hours over the weekend.
    The law holds parents stricly responsible for their children’s acts of violence, but the law –which would impose a fine of 2000 Euros and a prison term of up to 2 years, has not been applied. There is also concern about the delay in sentencing those arrested –it could be months before their cases come up.
    The parents of these teenagers are largely “allophone” –a term in French that describes someone living in France whose first language is not French, and who speaks French poorly, i.e., is not bilingual.
    There is a great sense of frustration at the destruction wreaked over the last week on the part of most French, but the political deadlock makes even a short-term, let alone a middle, or long-term solution, hard to foresee.
    People on the Left speak of “systematic racism” in France’s institutions, while people on the right speak of “respect for France’s laws and institutions and the authority of the state within the framework of ‘Republican values'”. Meanwhile, France’s debt is 1.12% larger than its GNP, so spending money the country doesn’t have on social programs without alarming the holders of France’s debt is not possible.
    The World Rugby Cup, which will be played throughout France in the month of September, will probably be closely watched not just by fans, but by French anxious that there may be civil disturbances in the towns where the matches are played with the way the match goes a pretext for violence. It has been noted that there is an organization behind last week’s rioting –Molotov cocktails concocted, incendiary accelerants purchased, younger looters bringing up the rear by throwing stones at police officers as their elders pillage and incinerate. Something more than a call over social media to demonstrate against the police, the case of the Mayor whose house was set on fire will be thoroughly investigated to determine how –and who– planned the sophisticated attack.
    Meanwhile, in my little village, the wine-growers are busy trimming their vines, the grapes having had great weather and a very good vintage expected, if the weather remains clement. I wouldn’t say “their heads are in the sand” about events in the rest of France, but farmers need to be steady in their devotion to agriculture, so life goes one, more or less peacefully here.

  • Mya says:

    Edifying comments, & column of course, which as a French American ( more American than French at this point) living in the US , I much appreciate reading.

  • bernard says:

    One learns, 3 full days after the fact, that a 27 years old man driving a scooter was shot dead by a policeman using a flashball in Marseilles. It is not even known if the man (whose name seems to be withheld by our democratic institutions) was participating in a rioting event or just driving by , in other words the courageous policeman who shot him dead appears to remain unidentified. We shall see later on but, with stuff like this being hidden for 3 days, I would suggest to all tourists to be careful in France around July 14th. This could potentially become big.

  • What’s also noticeable this time round (and different from 2005) is how the national debate is being led by the extremes. Media coverage is dominated by voices from the extreme right (Eric Zemmour of Reconquête and Jordan Bardella and Marine Le Pen of the RN) and the extreme left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon and others from LFI). The centre right LR and centre left PS voices are almost inaudible while members of the government, including Macron, have a constant ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look of alarm. What hope for any kind of agreement on how to move forward? We’ll now likely have the inevitable ‘listening exercise’ and some sort of commission to come up with new ideas, like that of Borloo in 2018. Doubtless, this will satisfy no one and the issue will be ignored until things flare up again.

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