The Media Narrative: An Overview and Critique
According to international media reports (primarily from the United States), France is currently experiencing a fresh round of protests in response to the murder of 17-year-old Nael by a French police officer while the former was speeding through the suburb of Nanterre, Paris, on Tuesday, 27 June.
This is the third “traffic arrest” incident to occur in the first half of 2023. In 2022, there were approximately 13 of these incidents, compared to three in 2021 and six in both 2018 and 2017. A legal amendment in 2017 allowed police to shoot drivers in five different instances. More terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 prompted the approval of this amendment.
Although shooting incidents are not as frequent in France as in the United States, they have become widespread, with significant consequences for France and much debate over immigration policies and practices of the French state and people, as well as police use of force against citizens.
Following the incident, many immigrant descendants took to the streets of Nanterre and the nearby suburbs to demonstrate. Soon after, these protests spread to other French villages and big cities like Limoges, Saint-Prix, Marseille, and Strasbourg, as well as some French territories abroad like Réunion Island and French Guiana. There were altercations with the police, violent acts, vandalism, looting, and the burning of vehicles, buildings, and passenger buses. Violence intensified on the fourth day and then diminished somewhat on the fifth day, but it persists.
This narrative is consistent with the rhetoric of the far-left Macron government on the one hand and the French state on the other, and it confirms that France is a country with a colonial mentality that has been transformed into a dictatorial state by the President, who enacts his policies and reforms without a “real” dialogue or a majority in Parliament. It is obvious that the president is more authoritarian than his predecessor. It is true that it was approved to expand the circumstances in which the police officer is permitted to draw and use his weapon, but this change was made in response to the rising number of terrorist incidents, particularly the Nice accident, in which a terrorist driver ran over and killed many people. On the other hand, these instances authorized by the law are still limited, and the issue, however, is not with the rules because the officer broke them by drawing his weapon without the prerequisite circumstances being present, committing the crime he committed.
Residents of the suburbs suffer from various forms of discrimination, the majority of which is widespread, and the state’s policies and assumptions regarding the suburbs can certainly be criticized, but they are not racist. When it comes to the interaction between the police and residents of the suburbs, there is a general grumbling about the proportion of Arabs among those who are stopped by the police and asked for their documentation. This does not justify what occurred or the attempts to exploit and incite unrest.
Crisis Management: Between Deterrence and Containment
In an effort to prevent the countrywide escalation of violent and vandalized acts, Macron and his government moved swiftly to address the incident’s aftermath. In this vein, a number of measures were taken, the first of which was the suspension of the accused officer from duty before arresting and accusing him of “intentional murder”, to curb the escalating acts of violence that swept the streets and prevent any attempt to sow discord and chaos out of fear of a repeat of the 2005 French riots, which were unrelated to the current incident in terms of the causes but may incite a similar response. In those days, France experienced unrest over the course of three weeks, which led to the burning of more than 10,000 cars, the damage of 233 public buildings and 74 private buildings in 300 different regions, and the arrest of more than 4,000 people over the deaths of two young men who were electrocuted at a power plant while they were evading the police. Ten days after the riots began, this unrest compelled the administration of former French President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency, under which the government was given additional authority and the right to impose curfews and suppress protests.
In light of this, the official French response to deal with the accident’s aftermath can be described as follows:
- President Macron presided over a crisis meeting of ministers, which he called after returning from Brussels, Belgium, where he had attended an EU summit. Macron called the incident “inexplicable” and “inexcusable”, condemned the way it was exploited, and urged parents to take responsibility. He added: “It is clear that what we are going through is the result of organized, sometimes violent, and equipped groups. We condemn their act and will arrest them and put them on trial – but also a lot of young people.” In addition, he announced that security forces would be deployed to quell the unrest and urged social media sites to remove videos of the incident, particularly on Tik Tok and Snapchat. Additionally, according to Elysee sources, President Macron will meet with the 220 affected mayors as well as the presidents of the National Assembly, Senate, and National Assembly on 3 July.
Notably, President Macron’s handling of the crisis has been swift, and this may be an effort to avoid mistakes made by former President Jacques Chirac when handling the 2005 riots. At the time, Chirac told the populace in an official address: “Those who attack must know that in a republic, one cannot break the law without being caught, judged, and punished.” He believed the incident reflected a societal identity crisis, but he did not justify violence, unlike President Macron, who held the police officer accountable for the accident.
- Elizabeth Borne, the French prime minister, criticized the incident as “unacceptable”. Regarding the declaration of a state of emergency, she stated, “We are examining all possible scenarios, with the return of republican order throughout the nation as our top priority.” Borne also went to see Vincent Jeanbrun, mayor of the municipality of L’Hay-les-Roses, with the interior minister after his home was set on fire by unidentified individuals, frequently associated with drug trafficking organizations, who attempted to kill his wife and children. The Cabinet also promised to deal firmly with violent crimes by toughening penalties for those who target public servants, citing the attack on the mayor’s home as “shocking” and promising that no violence will go unpunished. She explained that all the necessary resources for the confrontation have been made available, including 45,000 police officers, drones, armored vehicles, and helicopters.
- Gerald Darmanin, the French Interior Minister, made an effort to control the situation, which he described as “very appalling”, by announcing on French television on Friday evening that 45,000 policemen would be mobilized. He added that 917 people were detained on Friday, while approximately 719 people were detained on Saturday night, and approximately 157 people were detained on Sunday night, according to information released by the interior ministry on Monday morning. Similarly, during his visit to Reims on the same day, Darmanin stated that the number of those arrested in the previous three days was approximately 3,200, which is an “unprecedented situation”. Here, it should be noted that the Interior Minister handled the situation with greater caution and resolve, as evidenced by the relative calm on the fifth day, especially given that he relied on a sizable number of police forces as well as specialized elite units to control the current situation. This contrasts with Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s interior minister, who in 2005 called young men who rioted in apartment buildings outside of Paris “scum” and said they needed to be “gotten rid of”. At the time, Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin, his prime minister, believed the two boys to be outlaws and supported the police. To prevent violent incidents from worsening, the government also worked to increase security personnel, who now number 45,000.
In this context, it is important to note that the extremes of the right and left have attempted to use these events to further their own agendas and demonstrate how dissatisfied they have become with the current administration.
Former presidential candidate and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, for instance, accused the government of laxity in managing the immigration file, stating, “These appalling events bring our leaders back to the reality that they lost sight of because of the intoxication of solitary power and crazy ideological construction, particularly on immigration, and judicial laxism.” The former presidential candidate and leader of the far left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and some of his supporters rejected attempts to calm the situation and demanded justice.
Several Incentives for Violence Escalation
Several factors have contributed to the growth of violent and vandalistic acts in France since the beginning of Nael’s murder despite efforts by the French government to control them, the most significant of which are as follows:
- Disadvantaged Areas: The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Insee) estimates that 5.2 million people, or about 8% of the population, reside in underprivileged areas in France as of 2023. Approximately 23.6% of people living in these neighborhoods were not born in France, compared to 10.3% of people living in France as a whole, based on 2021 data from Insee. With a 13% unemployment rate in 2021 (compared to 8% for the general population), immigrants, particularly those of non-European origin, experience a less favorable situation on the labor market. Maghreb immigrants and descendants of Maghreb immigrants reported experiencing this situation twice as frequently as men without an immigrant background. In 2019, popular neighborhoods had the highest rate of poverty in France, with 43.3% of the population living below the poverty line, compared to 14.5% in the other regions. Additionally, popular neighborhoods have much higher unemployment rates. According to Insee, in 2020, 18.6% of the labor force was unemployed, compared to 8% nationally.
- Violence and the Law: This was not the first instance of its kind. In France, fatal police shootings of motorists have increased since the passage of a law in 2017 permitting officers to shoot motorists who fail to comply with orders, especially stop orders, and endanger the lives of others. Following a string of terrorist attacks in France, lawmakers enacted this law change. In reality, France is plagued by urban rodeos [rodéo urban], a reckless car-riding practice. According to a Reuters survey, the majority of victims since 2017 have been black or of Arab descent.
- The Increasing Use of Social Media: This was a major factor in igniting the situation. In contrast to the 2005 riots, which did not spread as quickly as the recent Nael incident, the latter was shared online and watched by tens of thousands on social media sites like TikTok, Snapchat, and Twitter. This contributed to the rapid escalation of vandalism and violence, with teenagers comprising 30 percent of vandals and constituting the majority of media consumers.
Although some politicians blame social media for fueling unrest and making such incidents more common, it has actively contributed to the exposure of police practices. Another recent incident (that was not captured on camera) demonstrated how social media is used to document police practices.
- Whether or not the current spate of violence ends soon, it is a telling reflection of the crises that the current French regime is currently experiencing. A short time ago, there were widespread protests due to the reform of the pension law, and prior to that, there were waves of protest against the security law, in addition to the yellow vest protests, which reflect the crises of the European welfare systems and their inability to provide resources and distribute them in abundance to their citizens, unlike in previous decades. This could be attributed to a combination of economic factors, such as sluggish growth, and demographic factors, such as a rise in the average age of the population alongside a decline in the number of births. If nothing is done to fix the flaws in the French economic and social system, we cannot rule out the possibility that this scenario will become the norm.
- Violence and looting have become one of the pressure mechanisms used by the French to express their discontent with the ruling regime. It also poses a threat to the country’s security, the legitimacy of the ruling regime, and its standing abroad. In light of these riots, the French president’s visit to Germany was canceled, and the British king’s visit to France was canceled in the wake of the protests against the pension reform. It is noteworthy that this unrest began just a little over a year before France is scheduled to host the Olympics. Additionally, the effects of the demonstrations in France spread to nearby countries like Switzerland, where on Saturday night, Lausanne police detained six people, aged 15 to 17, and another person, aged 24.
The Arabic version of this article was already published on July 4, 2023.