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France’s Racism Still on Display as It Denies Its Colonial Past — and Present

Violence against people of France’s former colonies is so packed with tragedies that a timeline would fill an article.

A protester sits in front of CRS riot police during a demonstration at Place de la Concorde in Paris, France, on June 30, 2023, over the shooting of a teenage driver by French police in a Paris suburb on June 27.

Nahel M., a 17-year-old poor French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan origin, died of a single bullet fired by a French police officer at almost point-blank range on June 27.

When I heard the news about the murder of young Nahel in the ghetto-ized suburb of Nanterre, shot at close range because he initially refused to stop his vehicle, my mind went back to the mainly Algerian-populated and impoverished Nanterre of 1968, and to the new university campus built there back then — the starting point of the historic student upheaval.

In 1968 the Nanterre students had been sensitized by the Vietnam war and the U.S. role in it, and by France’s racism against the very same ghetto where Nahel, two generations later, would be murdered. Again and again, we find in those bearing witness after Nahel’s death a feeling of “eternal recommencement” — eternal rebeginning.

Another memory comes to mind about those May 1968 days that I witnessed and in which I participated: the cobblestones. We pulled up the sometimes centuries-old cobblestones to build barricades. It was the turning point of our confrontation with a police force whose brutality was already in overreach when they tortured Algerian freedom fighters struggling for their independence — to which Frantz Fanon has clinically referenced.

After 1968, all cobblestones were gradually, relentlessly, pulled out of the Paris cityscape, never to be replaced. It was a symbol of the state’s fear and denial of the message sent by an upheaval that marked the beginning of the end of [Charles] de Gaulle’s government, because the working class had formed a united front with the students.

With Nahel again, there is that same feeling of the government’s denial and hypocrisy. And France’s basic denial, that it has no colonial present or past. As the spokesperson for Europe Ecologie Les Verts, Marine Tondelier, speaking to Sud Radio on June 29 of this year, stated: “We are speaking of a continuum of police violence, a continuum of racism, a continuum of post-colonization that has never been addressed or dealt with — and a continuum of segregation in this country, where we warehouse in suburbs people we don’t know how to relate to otherwise. I am sad to say that, in this country, the suburbs are only mentioned when they are burning.”

The continuum of systemically racialized violence against people of France’s former colonies living in the “metropole” — the “mother country” — is so packed with tragedies, riots and upheavals that a timeline would fill an article. The three references by both protesters and sociologists, after Nahel’s death, are: the 2005 death of two Algerian teenagers, Zined and Bouna, who were returning from a football match with a group of friends and were so terrorized by the hostility of police officers that they ran from them, taking refuge in an electric substation where they were electrocuted and died; the police brutality against the “gilets jaunes” [yellow vests], although they were mostly lower middle class and French; and the police brutality against those — including the youth — protesting postponement of the age of retirement.

The latter was so shocking that the United Nations issued a stern and prescient warning at the end of last April at the Human Rights Council, criticizing France for “police violence, racial and religious discrimination.” (tinyurl.com/mssc3b5a)

We will come back to the elephant in the room: France’s denial of its racist post-colonial posture.

Meanwhile, the French government and other commentators or media close to the powers-that-be, and even certain leftists, avoid the question: “Is this France’s George Floyd moment?” Does the question touch too raw a nerve? The French are fiercely individualistic, and even if President [Emmanuel] Macron all too easily and hastily incriminated video games (as well as parental negligence and social media) as the root cause of the youth upheavals that followed Nahel’s killing. Surely these videos were made-in-France, not in the USA, as the French tend to say.

Nahel: Eight Reasons Why This Is France’s George Floyd Moment

Chillingly, we now know that the last words Nahel heard were: “Shoote-le,” a vulgar Americanism for “Shoot him.”

Another argument states that this could hardly be a George Floyd moment in France, since “racist police brutality has been going on for decades in France” — the implication being that there was no racist police brutality in the U.S. before George Floyd. What about the slave patrols, the Jim Crow lynchings and, closer to our own continuum, [the killing of Michael Brown in] Ferguson, Missouri, Amadou Diallo, James Byrd, Eric Garner, Elijah McClain and hundreds of other Black deaths, before and after George Floyd?

In George Floyd’s case, as in Nahel’s, a video surfaced just in time to destroy a false police narrative that was already being officialized. In Nahel’s case, the false narrative was that he had sought to run over the two officers, which is belied by both the video and a statement given by the other passenger. In George Floyd’s case, the trumped-up narrative was that his chokehold death at the hands of Derek Chauvin was “a medical accident” — which the video and testimony also belie.

Another shocking and important similarity between the two deaths is the context of increasing militarization of the police on both sides of the Atlantic. The chokehold used by Chauvin is currently taught by Israeli training officers. The police officer who felt emboldened to execute 17-year-old Nahel had a license to kill, thanks to a new 2017 French law pushed through by rightwing police unions under the Socialist government of Francois Hollande. It basically gives the police shooting rights that only the military police, called “gendarmes,” had until then — blurring the line between self-defense and license to kill. The gendarmes are part of the French army.

The number of those killed by police since passage of the 2017 law has increased fivefold, despite Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin’s assertion to the contrary.

Another sad comparison with George Floyd’s killing, but also Manuel Tortuguita’s 57-bullet slaying early this year, is the sullying of the image of the dead victim. Tortuguita’s brother bears witness to how the Georgia Bureau of Investigation wanted to investigate Tortuguita [Paez Terán], not their death; George Floyd was “a known drug addict” affected by “excited delirium in somebody too big” (Chauvin’s words); little Nahel had a “criminal record.” All falsehood, innuendo: The victim is criminalized beyond the grave.

The comparison with George Floyd and what happens almost daily in the U.S. since Fred Hampton’s murder and the frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal is the weaponization by the state of the police narrative. Likewise, as the journalist Cemil Sanli said also on June 29 to Le Media about Nahel’s death: “He was killed twice, once by the bullet and that death was instantaneous — but his name was also poisoned by a slow day-by-day police narrative spreading through the media.”

It is too early at the time of this writing to assert whether another similar aspect can be detected between both “moments” — but if the overspill of the youth rebellions, from France to Brussels and Lausanne [Switzerland], continues elsewhere in Europe, there might also be a more global Nahel-inspired movement. In any event, the embers slumber — as reports of upheavals in French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique indicate.

One last worthwhile similitude between the contexts of both murders to consider: the post-George Floyd period, marked by the Black Lives Matter upheavals nationally and internationally, sent the U.S. police into a spiral of disgruntled demoralization – so much so, that the initiative came from Atlanta to boost its own police’s morale by introducing the ominous project of a “Cop City” — where the cops could play cops and robbers in a mock city, learning counterinsurgency with the latest updated military equipment.

Likewise, in an article for France Inter dated May 17, 2021, we are given the results of a French poll called the Cevipof, one of which reveals that 74 percent of police officers on duty in France intend to vote for the Rassemblement National, Le Pen’s far-right party. This tendency is on the increase and the explanation is that, by their own admission, the police are “professionally tired and in low spirits.”

French Far Right Forged Its Identity in Its Hatred of Algeria

The Left is aware that the angry upheavals following Nahel’s murder, the destruction of property and loss of tourism, are already favoring France’s shift to the far right — a far right that built its identity around the hatred of Algeria and its fight for independence.

Indeed, the far right is so emboldened by the situation in France following Nahel’s death that a fundraiser was started by a leader close to Marine Le Pen and by Eric Zemmour for the police officer placed in temporary custody: the amount now totals over 1.6 million euros ($1.7 million), much more than Nahel’s family has been able to collect. GoFundMe allowed its platform to be used.

In his June 2, 2023, article titled “Is Killing Blacks a Growth Industry?,” Ishmael Reed writes: “Contrast those who in the old days lynched for free with Kyle Rittenhouse, who raised two million for a defense fund. He killed two demonstrators. Daniel Penny, the killer of Jordan Neely, has broken that record. As of May 19, Penny has raised $2.66 million of which [Ron] De Santis gave $2 million.”

The mind boggles. Macron did not even, for the sake of public relations, visit the mother of the child who was killed in cold blood — but the day after the shooting he was filmed dancing at an Elton John concert, while Paris was burning. Meanwhile, the Algerian government broke a precedent around this type of event and sent a stiff reminder to the French government that it expected France to protect those of Algerian lineage on French soil.

The backdrop of Nahel’s death is, indeed, a souring of French diplomatic relations with the Algerian government, which just before Nahel’s death reinstated a very militant stanza of its national anthem played only at meetings of the National Liberation Front (the armed national liberation movement that wrested national independence from the French). The added stanza, written by the poet Moufdi Zakaria in 1955, during the struggle for independence, says:

Now comes the day

when you will have to render accounts. Get ready. Here is our reply: Our verdict

will be given by our revolution, for we have decided Algeria will live.

By restoring the National Anthem, President [Abdelmadjid] Tebboune of Algeria is said to have wanted to criticize Macron’s double-faced post-colonial relationship to his nation and the French government’s favoring the claim of formerly French Morocco to the Western Sahara enclave claimed by the Polisario Liberation Front.

Macron badly needs Algeria’s gas to reduce his dependence on Russian gas in the context of the Ukraine war. But at the same time, in order to pacify pressure from the extreme right, he has also been trying to jeopardize the 1968 Franco-Algerian agreement, which facilitates Algerian immigration into France. In fact, Macron’s policy of oscillation, of wanting to have his cake and eat it too, has been his trademark throughout his uneasy and unfeeling navigation of the week since Nahel was killed.

His chosen Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, is the perfect executor of Macron’s Munich-type attitude. Very ambitious, Darminin has been known to switch parties and let political protectors down if he could find more profitable platforms, because he has his own presidential dream. He publicly proclaims that his mother is still a “cleaning lady,” and his Algerian grandfather was in the French army. Colonial ambiguity would appear to be in his DNA.

Meanwhile, just like the youth in Atlanta City Council asking the Council members on June 6 of this year, “Do you even hear us or are you sleeping?,”the immigrant racialized youth of France’s disinherited suburbs explain that they have no interlocutor, are not heard, so they could only act out their anger.

Darmanin announced that the median age of those arrested was 17 years old. No wonder. Nahel was 17 and his death struck the strong collective chord of intergenerational trauma and invisibility since the end of the Algerian war. As I sign off, we hear that children of 12 to 13 have been arrested, and we cannot help thinking of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” where the child revolutionary Gavroche is killed on the barricades in 1832 Paris. But then, “Les Misérables” and the heroism of 12-year-old Gavroche are taught in French schools — those very schools to which France’s colonial immigrants don’t have access.

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