Above Photo: Urban violence Nahel Besançon-Planoise 29-06-2023. Toufik-de-Planoise.
What is it about France these days? La republique seems to be ever on the brink of exploding over one or another social question. Twice in the past four months the French have erupted in protests and all too often rioting. In March they took to the streets, burned buildings, burned tires, built barricades, lit bonfires, and made impassioned references to the guillotine in reaction to the Macron government’s plans to neoliberalize the pension system. For a week beginning last Tuesday, cities from Lille to Marseille were set ablaze after the police shot and killed a 17–year-old citizen named Nahel, who was of North African descent. This occurred at a traffic stop in Nanterre, one of the unspeakably grim banlieues that ring Paris and other large French cities.
When I watch these events unfold, one after the other, I always come to the same conclusion: France ‘R’ Us. The French inherited a certain political fractiousness from their 18th century revolution, true. But the social and political confrontations occurring regularly in France these days are visible manifestations of social and political confrontations that are suppressed or sublimated elsewhere all over the West. This is why we ought to pay attention. The French happen to have the good sense to say what they mean more readily than the rest of us.
It is interesting to consider these latest occasions side by side. The prolonged protests against the government’s widely unpopular and undemocratically enacted pension reforms were a rainbow coalition, no doubt: There was no apparent reference to race or ethnicity, and certainly not to religious belief. Anyone who stood against the reforms that obsessed President Emmanuel Macron would have joined in without a thought. But the April protests were in essence expressions of a France—the employed, visible, on-the-social-map France wherein the white-majority working and middle classes are dominant.
Last week’s nationwide eruption into violence was by all indications limited to the large Muslim populations living on the outskirts of all the major French cities. Having watched as best I could all week, I saw a few signs, but very few, that non–Arab, non–Muslim French citoyens took any part in it. Most French seem to have watched as if from a distance, as if those gripped by uncontainable explosions of anger were some other people in some other country.
In the press photographs of the street demonstrations you could spot a small number of sympathizers of European descent. And many French people insisted that “it is necessary to examine the roots of the riots,” as Le Monde put it in a Monday editorial. But this was at bottom a case of communal violence. And it did not seem all that necessary to examine the roots of the riots until a lot of shops, businesses, local mayors and city halls were attacked, and in some cases buildings burned down. “The time for this self-examination will come. It is imperative,” Le Monde’s editorialists wrote. “But the seriousness of the situation”—meaning the extent of the destruction beyond the banlieues—“requires us all, for the time being, to call for calm.”
Join me in wondering whether France has year by year become two countries, different and radically unequal, since the influx of non–Western immigrants began after the decolonization of the imperial possessions decades ago. Join me in wondering whether it is time to count France’s laïcité, its centuries-old, more or less hallowed principle of secularism, a brilliant, necessary idea that has gone down—literally, shall we say?—in flames.
Join me in concluding—nothing to wonder about here—that 21st century France is best understood as, in the case of Nahel, symptomatic of a malady that besets all of us in the West. On display in France is a shared refusal or inability among Western societies to accept non–Westerners as equals in their midst and, by extension, to accept that half a millennium of presumed Western superiority is ending as we speak and that new understandings of what it means to be human press themselves urgently upon us.
For some days after the police in Nanterre shot Nahel at point-blank range at a traffic stop, he was known publicly as Nahel M. We now know him to be Nahel Merzouk. Nahel had grown up in a single-parent household in Nanterre and was of Algerian–Moroccan background. Last Tuesday morning he was driving a Mercedes, a zippy A Class AMG, with two friends as passengers, in central Nanterre. The car was in a bus lane, according to the TikTok account Le Monde carried, which was based on video surveillance, bystanders’ videos, interviews with witnesses, and police officers’ statements. The car had Polish plates and an apparently erratic driver. When two flics on motorcycles caught up with it at a red light and told the driver to pull over, the car bolted.
Nahel got stuck in traffic at another red light, and the two cops dismounted and approached the car on the driver’s side with guns drawn. Nahel attempted to bolt again, at which point one of the cops fired at close range, killing Nahel and causing the car to crash. One of the passengers later testified that the police pistol-whipped Nahel before he was shot. A bystander’s video recorded one of the cops saying, “I will put a bullet in your head.”
There are two features of this account that require scrutiny if we are to understand last week’s events in the full context understanding always requires. One is Nahel Merzouk’s conduct and the other is the conduct of the police.
It looks as if Nahel Merzouk may have been other than an angelic adolescent, at least when it came to his road habits, but based on what has been made public, which is not much, he would have qualified as “a nice boy,” as his grandmother has described him. His mother raised him, with the grandmother apparently close by, so there was something of an extended family arrangement such as one often finds in non–Western societies. Nahel played rugby, loved cars, and wanted to be a mechanic.
Our question: Why would a boy of Nahel’s character step on the gas to get away when stopped by the police for one or more not-very-grave driving infractions? We Americans may reflect—correctly or otherwise—that if a teenaged driver like Nahel were stopped in a suburb of, say, Boston or Baltimore, it would be very unlikely he would try to run. Why did Nahel?
Many young French people—of Muslim backgrounds, people of color—have answered this question over the past week. They have all offered the same explanation. Nahel shared with most French of Arab or African descent a profound fear of the police, mixed in that bitterest of cocktails with anger and resentment. A piece by Constant Méheut, a very able reporter in The New York Times’s Paris bureau, got it down as well as anyone in Saturday’s editions. Méheut had spent the previous night on the streets in the Pablo–Picasso district of Nanterre. (The names they give these forsaken places are altogether weird: There is another district called Pablo–Neruda.)
“They killed a boy for nothing,” a 20–year-old named Sami Benboudaoud told Méheut. “For years, we’ve been saying that the police are mistreating us, killing us. But nobody is listening. Maybe with some riots, they’ll start listening.” A 35–year-old restaurateur named Mohamed Saly said, “The anger is as strong as the violence of the tragedy. From Brahim Rochdi, Saly’s husband: “Let’s face it, in France, if you shoot a Black person, a Muslim or an Arab, there are no repercussions.”
That is what the Paris banlieues sounded like last week. That is why Nahel Merzouk bolted when two police officers stopped him. And the police officers could not have done a better job confirming these fears and attitudes had they tried.
You have all kinds of flics in France, but there are enough of them given to xenophobic prejudices and brutality to create a police culture that is unfortunately prevalent. A lot of these officers are, to put it plainly, country folk from the poorer départements who brim with class resentments, racism, and anger all their own. As violence erupted after Nahel’s murder last week, two police unions released statements asserting they were “at war against vermin” and “faced these savage hordes.” In my experience, admittedly long ago, the CRS, the French riot police, are the most Fascistically brutish in this line. In fairness to the police, the French banlieues are tough, dangerous assignments. But it is impossible to get from there to any rational explanation for why a fleeing teenager was justly shot in the head.
Here is the reality to which we have just been exposed: You do not hear many complaints about police conduct among mainstream French. To an extent few care to acknowledge, it is fair to say the nation’s various police organizations effectively stand on the front line that divides the two Frances noted above. The officer who shot Nahel is now identified as Florian M. and faces charges of voluntary manslaughter. As of Monday, 52,000 French had donated €1.1 million, about the same amount in U.S. dollars, to his legal defense fund.
“Part of the problem is Mr. Macron’s relationship to the police,” Harrison Stetler wrote in an excellent analytic piece that appeared in The New York Times’s Saturday editions. “Since coming to office in 2017, the president has relied on the police forces, cementing their central role in French political life. The spate of protests rejecting Mr. Macron’s various social reforms—most recently of the pension system—has been countered by a heavy use of the police. During the worst of the pandemic, police officers were the frontline executors of Mr. Macron’s stringent lockdowns and curfews.”
Macron, indeed, deployed 45,000 uniformed police to combat the violence last week. It goes without saying that the rioting and looting and the setting of fires had to be contained, but it ought to go without saying that it was wrong to make police deployments the face of the republic, the only thing France had to say to a minority population for whom the murder of one of their own had proven the spark that lit a nationwide fire. I go back to that Monde editorial noted earlier: Yes, we must consider the root causes, but not now. Mainstream France has been saying this for many decades.
“Nothing justifies the death of a young person,” President Macron said the day after Nahel’s murder, as Nanterre and other banlieues erupted. As quoted many times, he called the shooting “inexcusable.” But it was more or less instantly evident that this response was inadequate, another case of failed leadership among Macron’s many.
Ever preoccupied with presentation and appearance, this week Macron has been walking a tightrope strung between the police and France’s vociferous right-wing parties on one side and on the other leftist critics such as Jean–Luc Mélenchon, head of La France Insoumise (“France in Rebellion,” or “France Unbowed.”). He and his cabinet are spending a lot of time with the mayors of towns and cities struck by violence and with the owners of restaurants in said towns and cities. I have seen nothing to suggest the president or members of his cabinet have spent even an hour in any of the banlieues.
Did Mélenchon put it best in an impassioned interview aired this week on La Chaîne Info, a television news channel? Referring to Macron’s constituency among “the rich and powerful,” he said, “They have the idea that they’re going to live apart, that this fauna, the ‘nuisances,’ as their police officers say, are a problem; that they have to be kept at a distance, they have to be subdued.”
There are many ways the English Channel is very wide, and one of these is pertinent to the case of Nahel Merzouk.
If you arrive in Britain on a flight from an Asian or otherwise non–Western nation, you are likely to see among the immigration officials those of the race or ethnicity of the country from which you are traveling. They will speak the prevalent language among the passengers, to whom they will be solicitous. Their uniform insignia will be in this language. These arrivals will then be able to go to neighborhoods in London or elsewhere populated by their ethnic group or nationality. The street signs will be in their language. The shopkeepers will speak it. Identity is honored.
It is diametrically the opposite for immigrant arrivals in France. Everything will be in French, and there will be no accommodation of any kind of separate identity. If an immigrant proposes to become French, he or she must speak French and become French in ways well beyond what any passport or piece of paper confers. For a long time immigrants from, say, North Africa or the Middle East were required to take French names. Mohammad became Pierre or Jean–Charles. Identity is erased.
For a long time I could not make up my mind whether the English or the French way of accepting immigrants was best. Was letting new citizens retain their language and customs right and respectful, or was it better to go the route of, let’s call it, totalized assimilation?
Laïcité has been put in the service of this French way of accepting foreigners for many years. In simple terms, laïcité is a rigorously defined, constitutionally mandated notion of secularism. The principle has its roots in the French Revolution, when the new citoyens wanted to get the Catholic Church out of politics and the power structure. The Third Republic, 1870 to 1940, made much of this concept. Church and state must be decisively separate. There can be no question of official identification with or action against any religion. There can be no religious instruction in public education: It would be moral and civic instruction instead.
When de Gaulle declared the Fifth Republic in 1958, he put this in its constitution: “No one should be worried about his opinions, even religious, provided that their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” And it is here laïcité has run into trouble. In recent years the principle has been used to ban all sorts of manifestations of religious practice and belief in public. The most remarked of these bans was made law in 2011, when women were prohibited from wearing full face veils in public places. Girls who think they should wear veils to school as a matter of Islamic observance have two alternatives: No veil or no school.
It has been some years since I finally made up my mind on the British vs. French methods of receiving immigrants. Both methods fail. The English effectively relegate immigrants to ghettos that are more or less hermetic as a matter of policy. The French fail more abjectly. Nahel Merzouk was French and lived in Nanterre, but Nahel’s life had little to do with French life, and Nanterre, if you have ever seen such places, has little to do with France. As to laïcité, please do not try to tell me that women wearing veils “disturb the public order.” They disturb the minds of people who wish for a certain kind of order. In effect, the 18th century principle is simply not adequate to address 21st century realities. What was once meant to encourage freedom of thought and religion is now used to inhibit, if not prohibit, both.
The headline on Harrison Stetler’s very fine piece in The Times last week was “France Is on Fire.” So it was, things having calmed somewhat since Stetler published. For all the particulars of the French case, are the rest of us licensed to shake our heads disapprovingly as if to say, “Those French and their frictions, their contretemps, their eruptions.” I see no ground for this. Nahel Merzouk’s death tells the tale of two Frances. We, elsewhere in the West, are so unified across lines of race and class? What has gone on in France of late is merely a full-frontal-nudity version of what goes on elsewhere, or what we bury or flinch from and pretend is not there.