Macron under pressure as French riots expose divided republic
As France’s millions of Muslims were preparing for the climax of the Islamic calendar last week, a French police officer shot and killed a 17-year-old boy of Algerian origin in the western Parisian suburb of Nanterre. Protests broke out immediately and they have since descended into nightly riots, with thousands of people arrested. The embattled French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to leave the EU summit in Brussels early to try and restore order in a country that has again been rocked by protests. Despite the mobilization of 40,000 officers, the French authorities are unable to paper over the fault lines that divide their republic.
After successive pension reform protests this year and debilitating labor reform protests previously, France is again on fire. Only weeks after the last nationwide demonstrations, cars have been set on fire and banks and police stations firebombed in an outpouring of disgruntlement and anger at what France’s marginalized see as an act of institutional racism. Amid damage to at least 500 buildings and the starting of almost 4,000 fires, this explosion of social anger has the authorities on edge. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said “all options” were under consideration, including the declaration of a state of emergency. Nighttime public transport has been suspended and there has been a heavy police presence on the streets as the government seeks to prevent any more nights of rage.
The young man who was killed has been identified as Nahel Merzouk. He failed to stop his car and then ran a red light, but his violations did not warrant the shot to the chest that led to his premature death. His killing is symptomatic of a worrying police trend in France, which was warned by the UN Human Rights Council just in May for “excessive use of force.” The regularity of civil disturbance has made the French law enforcement authorities regularly use rubber bullets and stun grenades — a practice that is rare or banned entirely elsewhere in Europe.
Tuesday’s incident was sadly reminiscent of the 2005 deaths of two young North African men, who were electrocuted while being pursued by police. Though the scale of the subsequent riots has not been repeated, other incidents, such as the assault on music producer Michel Zecler in 2020, have illustrated that, almost four decades after the fatal beating of French-Algerian student Malik Oussekine, France’s police continue to disproportionately inflict violence according to race. Following the amendment of the law provisioning the use of firearms in 2017, officers can now open fire in a set of wide (and often vague) circumstances. This law was linked to 13 deaths following traffic stops in 2022 alone.
According to the French government’s own numbers, Black and Arab men are 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police than others. This reality highlights the plight of France’s many dejected, forgotten and disenfranchised youths. “Egalite,” or equality, is the third pillar of the French state, but the country is only becoming more unequal. Such inequalities are self-perpetuating in a system where a staggering 30 percent of household spending comes from unemployment and family benefits.
In seeking to use force to meet anger over police violence, Macron risks further exacerbating the problem.
Zaid M. Belbagi
France’s poverty problem is not helped by a rigidly stratified higher education system and a stubbornly high unemployment rate, which is caused by poor skills, labor market rigidities, employment protection legislation and high employer costs. In such a system, clashes between the residents of French suburbs and the police are not uncommon.
Despite the detention of the officer involved in last week’s incident on charges of voluntary homicide, the protests show no signs of calming. Macron has strongly condemned the killing but he remains firmly behind the police, whose support and unions he cannot afford to lose, given the civil tumult of recent years. In making clear that he is willing to adopt security measures “without taboos,” he has hinted at the implementation of a more draconian approach.
Failing to provide a different voice to his hard-line interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, this approach will not address the wider challenges of racism and social inequality, but will instead complicate them. The disproportionate use of identity checks and the imposition of fines on specific ethnic groups has time and time again been identified as a cause for social tensions and, in seeking to use force to meet anger over police violence, he risks further exacerbating the problem.
France is a fractured nation, in which urban elites do not experience the hardships of the low-income, ghettoized communities with poor prospects. In 2021, some 12,500 offences of a “racist, xenophobic or anti-religious nature” were officially recorded by the French Ministry of the Interior. This represented an increase of 13 percent in crimes and offences, and 26 percent in fines. Only when the state’s issue of racism is tackled will isolated incidents be less likely to erupt into violent rioting.
Despite rushing back to Brussels to reassure European allies and attending an Elton John performance while France’s major cities were in a state of chaos, this week’s protests are the last thing Macron needs. Although the economy is showing signs of recovery, interest rate hikes and inflation are exposing some cracks. Having only just muddled through last year’s elections, the president is greatly limited without a majority in parliament. Months of protests have typified his second term and, with these now turning violent, the coming four years could be a troubling period for a France that is saddled with ballooning public debt.
In the short term, Macron can only engage in meaningful reconciliation and engagement with the disenchanted sectors of French society. Despite the implementation of a national plan to tackle racism, the country has become more intolerant and the spectacular rise of the far right in the last elections was testament to this.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.