The images without question were shocking—cars overturned and burning on the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe standing mute witness as mobs screamed through the streets demanding justice. But none of this was half as shocking as the few seconds on a cellphone camera that had already become seared into the national conscience here in France and far beyond—a police officer shooting in the head a defenseless seventeen year-old in his car at a routine traffic stop.
It’s hardly a new phenomenon. The French have been taking to the streets their manifold beefs against their leaders, their bureaucracy, and their state since the first revolutionaries burst into Versailles on October 6, 1789, and carried off Louis XVI, at the time ten years younger than the present ruler of France.
The host of deep-seated fault lines that have sent many into the streets here on so many occasions runs very deep. Vast disparities persist in rank, wealth, privilege, and opportunity between classes; and now—with the increasingly diverse nature of French society—in the distrust, fear, and hatred of individuals who do not look, sound like, nor believe in the same fundamentals as the bulk of the French people.
Perhaps none of this was brought home to me more immediately or viscerally than by a prescient remark from one of France’s great strategic thinkers—Count Alexandre de Marenches, the longest serving head of French intelligence and counselor to presidents from Charles de Gaulle to François Mitterrand.
"The greatest, perhaps mortal, danger for France is the vast community that is living within our nation whose language we do not speak, whose religion we do not embrace, whose customs we do not understand or accept,” he told me in the early 1990s, when we were working on our book The Fourth World War. This is still France's greatest danger today.
In the thirty years since Marenches’ observation, this nation-within-a-nation has grown and metastasized, adding new elements and accents, into multiple pockets of frustration, poverty, and lack of opportunity that have implanted themselves all over France. Earlier waves of migrants came from French colonies in North Africa (the Maghreb) or southern Africa. The latest waves come from different Islamic regions torn by violence or terrorism.
At the time Marenches and I were talking, it was an easy matter to define the geography of these problems—certain areas of the “ceinture rouge” or red belt around Paris and some other major French cities. But today, there are minorities scattered throughout even the most prosperous regions. In 1974, when I rented a cottage in Vallauris for the summer to work on a book, this village in the hills above Cannes was a sleepy little hamlet where Picasso had his pottery studio. When my wife and I returned a decade ago, hundreds of North African families had moved in, taking over many of the shops and bistros I’d remembered. In another village in the south of France, police were called regularly to an elementary school that offered Arabic classes to children.
Nanterre, barely five miles northwest of the Arc de Triomphe in the heart of Paris, was the scene of the latest spark that lit up France: what appeared to be a police officer’s execution-style shooting of the teenaged Nahel Merzouk, of North African descent, at what should have been a routine traffic stop. Nanterre is a melting-pot sort of town where the elements have failed to meld into any coherent whole. A quarter of the town’s population was not born in France. The top 10 percent of families have four times the disposable income as the bottom 10 percent, but even the top decile has an annual income of barely 40,000 Euros. Nearly half the population is under the age of thirty. Half of them are unemployed—and with few prospects.
It is communities like this that have combusted and will likely continue to combust at disturbingly frequent, but utterly predictable intervals. It’s happened at least five times since 1972: Mohamed Diab in Versailles in 1972; Lahouari Ben Mohamed in Marseille in 1980; Malik Oussekine in Paris in 1986; Youssef Khaïf in Mantes-la-Jolie in 1991; Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005; and Nahel Merzouk in Nanterre last month. Each was a victim of a confrontation with police. And in each case, protestors took to the streets.
France is a highly-centralized nation, and so any attempt at a solution to these profoundly destructive events falls to the president of the republic. As Emmanuel Macron has discovered, it is possible to put a cap on the unrest that led to 5,000 vehicles burned, 1,000 buildings damaged or looted, 250 police stations attacked, and more than 700 officers injured over five days of violence. All it took was 45,000 police and gendarmes sent into the streets—7,000 in Paris alone—who made more than 3,400 arrests, 60 percent of which had no prior criminal record, and with some as young as twelve.
Macron quickly realized he could not buy his way out of these troubles as he did with the yellow vest demonstrations over gas prices, or with the legislative and judicial legerdemain he used to deal with protests over a two-year retirement age increase. There is "no miracle solution," not even "more money," as Macron said to nearly 300 of the 500 mayors from French towns ripped by the racial violence. He convened them at the Élysée Palace on July 4th when the streets had finally returned to a degree of calm. "Health is free, school is free, and sometimes we have the feeling that it's never enough," he continued.
Nor is there really anyone to negotiate with—also unlike the yellow vest and retirement protestors. Even the religious leaders of these communities, the imams, admit they have lost the ears of the ever-younger who turn so quickly to violence, summoned in a heartbeat by social networks that are the only real confessors for these youths.
Each time, demands for some solution by the bulk of the French people only increase the power of false prophets from the political extremes of the far Right and far Left, who have their own toxic band aids that will never work. What will really work can’t be addressed: You simply can’t make the vast bulk of the French people love or even accept those who look or sound or believe differently from them. This only hardens with each rock thrown through a shop window or firecracker launched in anger at a cop. Alongside Macron, his Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne has tried—even banning the sale of fireworks through the July 14 national holiday. If you think that’s going to endear the government to its people, imagine how well that kind of action would be received in America around the Fourth of July. And meanwhile, the Conseil d’Etat, the nation’s highest court, affirmed a total ban on the wearing of hijabs or head scarves even in school soccer matches—on June 30, the same Friday when France was going up in flames over Nahel’s murder.
What would especially help France get past all of these incendiary moves is a substantial shift in the attitude of the police—where the real interaction takes place out on the streets. At the Élysée meeting with Macron, Patricia Tordjman, mayor of the Paris suburb of Gentilly, a member of the French Communist party, recalled that five years earlier, following the yellow vest riots, she had brought the president a list of grievances. At the top was written, "contempt by the police during checks.” But the subject was barely raised at the Élysée during five long hours of talks this month. "This subject is too 'touchy,'" Philippe Rio, the Communist mayor of Grigny, told Le Monde. "The death of a young person should have opened a debate on the relationship between the police and the population, but the riots have sterilized everything," added Benoît Payan, a Socialist city councilman of Marseille, the second-hardest hit city in France this time. But Macron was hardly anxious to open a new front with the police who had just put a cap on the violence and vandalism.
Since 2021, eighteen people have been killed by a police officer after “refusing to comply,” an actual category of offense created by the French Ministry of the Interior. In that same period, there have been seventy-one authenticated protests of actions by police, three-quarters leading to injuries or death. This is the record of local police who are daily on the streets, often in unwelcoming areas.
Still, it is all too easy to put the blame directly on police “gone wild,” especially since few of them are drawn from these communities that they patrol directly. As Sebastian Roché, perhaps France’s leading criminologist, put it to me in an e-mail exchange, “The police bear little resemblance to the societies where they work. You know the reason: self-selection, then selection by competition, then in the police academy, then by the peer group on leaving. The contexts play more at the societal level.”
Over the past twenty years, none of France’s leaders from across the political spectrum has ever really been able to address this genre of issues or been willing to grasp this political third rail. Less than two years after the riots of 2005, French voters installed a right-wing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was himself defeated for re-election by the Socialist François Hollande.
And so the sores just continue to fester. Violence will almost certainly burst forth again, though it is not for lack of seeking cures by some of the political class. This time, it didn’t take long for the first bills to appear in the National Assembly and the Senate. Leaders of the center-right Les Republicans party introduced measures aimed at withholding government handouts to parents of delinquent children; another, that would forfeit the French nationality of convicted dual nationals and insisted on the inclusion of 80,000 new prison cells in the government’s budget bill. In the Senate came measures aimed at lowering the criminal majority to sixteen years and eliminating allowances and social housing for the families of juvenile offenders. None of these proposals demonstrated the remotest appreciation of the fundamental nature of the problems they sought to address.
Which is not to say there are not efforts—perhaps only tangentially related to these acts of violence and their aftermath, but that could bear fruit. Next year, Paris will play host to the Olympic games, placing France very much on the world stage. In preparation, sixty-eight more metro stations are being built, most of them in the Parisian suburbs where some 10 million people live, compared with the just 2.1 million in the city itself—making the Paris suburbs the EU’s largest metropolitan area. This project could have an impact stretching long past the Olympics. It would tie these outlying regions even closer to the center, potentially removing the isolation of innumerable pockets and relieving some of the sense of hopelessness in the absence of a way out.
The big question is how to bridge the gap that still exists in the minds of too many French and their leaders, and that is only encouraged by the political extremes of France. A 2017 study by Jacques Toubon, the government’s Defender of Rights, showed “young men perceived as black or Arab were stopped for identity checks 20 time more frequently than whites in the previous five years, fewer than half describing the behavior of the police as polite,” and all too often leading to “refusing to comply” instances that rose as high as 14,000 in 2021.
Most of the time, the nights of riots and the political vacillation are all that remain engraved in people’s memories, eclipsing the initial drama between a youngster and policeman. If there is to be any change here in the years to come, the next generation must recognize and accept more of their commonality—what brings them together as French men and women rather than the origins that divide them.
David A. Andelman is an award-winning foreign correspondent, writer and columnist. His SubStack page is Andelman Unleashed, and he is a columnist for CNN. A former correspondent in Europe and Asia for The New York Times, he was Paris correspondent for CBS News and is a chevalier of France’s Legion d’Honneur. His latest book is A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen, plus its podcast.
Image: Unrest following the homicide of Nahel Merzouk, on the night of June 29, 2023 in the Planoise district of Besançon. (Wikimedia Commons: Toufik-de-Planoise)
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