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Anger Over Anti-Immigrant Prejudice Fuels French Uprising After Police Killing

In a telling public statement, French police unions have characterized the protesters as “vermin” and “savage hordes.”

People look at burning tires blocking a street in Bordeaux, France, on June 29, 2023, during nationwide protests following the shooting death of a 17-year-old boy by the French police in a western suburb of Paris.

The shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, a young man of Algerian descent, during a traffic stop in a Paris suburb, has been characterized as a cold-blooded, point-blank execution and has catalyzed massive street demonstrations in cities across the country.

Merzouk is the most recent victim of a 2017 law that loosened restrictions on the use of firearms by police in cases where a driver refuses to stop at an officer’s order. France 24’s Leela Jacinto explained that the 2017 law “was passed following a spate of terror attacks in France,” and has been slammed as a “license to shoot” legislation. Police killed at least 13 people in cases of “noncompliance” in 2022, she reports. While French authorities haven’t released the victims’ racial identities, Jacinto reports that one French sociologist documented an “overrepresentation of ethnic minorities among those killed.”

Street demonstrations have gripped cities throughout France, including Paris, Marseille, Lille and Lyon. Looting and firebombing has been reported. Thousands of demonstrators have been arrested, and hundreds of demonstrators and police have been injured.

After several days of mass protests against racism and police brutality, the Alliance Police Nationale and the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions, two unions representing half of all French police, called the protesters “vermin” and issued a statement saying, “Police officers are at the front line because we are at war. … Faced with these savage hordes, it’s no longer enough to call for calm, it must be imposed.”

As of this writing, a Twitter campaign launched by the far right National Front party’s Jean Messiha has raised more than €1 million for the family of the police officer — over four times the amount raised for the family of Merzouk.

Other than mobilizing the police, the French government has been ineffectual in response to Merzouk’s police killing, failing to acknowledge the underlying causes of the uprisings. French President Emmanuel Macron’s initial response was to state, “Nothing justifies the death of a young person,” calling Merzouk’s shooting “inexcusable” and “inexplicable.” On July 4, Macron convened more than 300 French mayors to begin to explore underlying causes and solutions, but the meeting resulted in finger-pointing among right and left parties and no concrete next steps.

In the only concrete proposal for change to date, politicians from the left-wing La France Insoumise party introduced draft legislation that would abolish the 2017 police firearms law. Meanwhile, the United Nations Human Rights Office urged the country to tackle “deep issues” of racism and discrimination in law enforcement.

As in so many cases of police-perpetrated violence, police had their own version of the shooting, claiming that Merzouk was driving erratically and threatening officers’ lives. However, Harrison Stetler reports for The New York Times that cellphone footage taken by a bystander showed one of the officers aiming his firearm at Merzouk’s driver’s window at point-blank range. The words, “I’m going to put a bullet in your head,” are heard before the car begins to accelerate, and the officer fires the fatal shot. The officer has since been given a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide.

Stetler, a journalist who writes about French politics and culture, wrote that, “Macron has tended to attribute deaths at the hands of the police to the regrettable errors of individual public servants,” and not the French judicial system. “Since coming to office in 2017, the president has relied on the police forces, cementing their central role in French political life.”

During President Marcon’s tenure, the police and National Guard have been called out repeatedly in the face of mostly peaceful massive protests, including Yellow Vest movement protests opposing inflation, higher gas prices and unpopular pension reforms, as well as the enforcement of pandemic restrictions.

The death of Merzouk and the uprisings that have followed must be understood in the context of France’s history of conquest and its refusal to address the consequences of racism in the present. Andrew Hussey described the ongoing toll of France’s colonialism in his 2014 book, The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and Its Arabs.

France has a large Muslim population including people from North Africa, the Middle East and the so-called “Black Atlantic,” which includes West Africa stretching from Mali to Senegal. Most of this Muslim population is descended from former subjects of the French empire with many living in poverty in neglected high-rises built in the banlieues, suburbs ringing the more affluent centers of major cities. For most tourists visiting Paris, these banlieues are only visible during the ride to and from the airport.

According to Le Monde, one of France’s largest newspapers, Algeria and other North African countries see Merzouk’s killing as evidence of the continued marginalization of North African immigrants. Le Monde notes Algerian newspaper El Khaber’s view of the killing, in which the paper writes, “A dramatic event has brought France face to face with its stubborn refusal to acknowledge a violent colonial past. France continues to marginalize generations of immigrants. Even if they were born on its territory, it has refused to accept them as French citizens with full rights.”

Indeed, shortly after the UN Human Rights Office issued its statement, “the French Foreign Ministry released a statement rejecting the UN’s accusation of racism among its police,” as Jacinto reported for France 24. “Any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force in France is totally unfounded,” the foreign ministry said.

Jacinto also noted Merzouk’s killing was only the latest example of police-perpetrated violence against ethnic minorities, mostly young men. High-profile police killings included a 2005 killing of two youth in a suburb north of Paris, which resulted in nationwide riots, and the 2016 killing of another young man from a north Paris banlieue.

André Rakoto, a defense and security analyst at Paris 8 University, promulgated the individual officer-focused “bad apple” excuse during a France 24 debate: “I understand the anger, losing a 17-year-old is tragic. But I think the way the procedure is going, it’s going in the right direction. I think we’re facing a policeman who acted badly, who’s not representative of the whole police force.”

His fellow panelist, Inès Seddiki, a French-Moroccan activist and founder of GHETT’UP, a nongovernmental organization working in Paris’s underserved banlieues, disputed this conclusion. “I don’t agree with the justice minister that this officer is on trial; it’s not the whole police. I disagree. I think it’s the whole police,” said Seddiki. “I think it’s a structural problem that we should try to address.”

Now, as is often the case, the media has turned its attention to the uprisings. A Sunday report on CNN had International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson in Paris focusing entirely on the demonstrations and violence. Robertson didn’t once mention Merzouk’s police-perpetrated murder.

Rokhaya Diallo, writing for The Guardian, addressed the roots of the nationwide demonstrations, writing, “The crimes of the police are at the root of many of the uprisings in France’s most impoverished urban areas, and it is these crimes that must be condemned first. After years of marches, petitions, open letters and public requests, a disaffected youth finds no other way to be heard than by rioting.”

The structural problems of anti-immigrant prejudice and racism within the French justice system, including the unleashing of police enforcers, remain issues that the French government and establishment are so far refusing to directly confront.

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