France Erupts … Again
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.