Until France tackles police brutality, anger will not subside

Emmanuel Macron linked riots over the police killing of teenager Nahel M to videogames. But the origins of the unrest are found much deeper, in the systemic racism of a post-colonial state

July 04, 2023
A riot police officer in France is silhouetted against a burst of fire
A riot police officer walks in front of a fire on the third night of protests sparked by the fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Nahel M was 17 when he was shot at point-blank range and killed by a police officer on the 27th June in his neighbourhood of Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. The police later claimed that Nahel had tried to ram the officers with his car, and invoked self-defence. They were proved wrong when video of the scene, filmed by a passerby, was released, showing the young man posed no such threat. In response, France’s banlieues, in big cities and smaller towns, erupted in anger.

“Unacceptable, unjustifiable.” These were French president Emmanuel Macron’s words on the 30th June, not in reference to the extra-judicial killing of a teenager by a policeman, but to the three nights of rioting that followed Nahel’s death. The French president hoped for the return to calm, calling on the rioters’ parents to take “responsibility in keeping their children at home”. He observed that he felt as though “sometimes, some youth re-enact in the streets what they saw in the video games that intoxicated them”. Video games have nothing to do with the current situation in France. But it is easier for the French president to rely on the reactionary cliché of youth brainwashed by violent games (which, according to the gaming specialists at PC Gamer, is essentially a load of merde) than to address the country’s long history of police violence in the banlieues—violence that is deeply rooted in racism and colonialism.

The French police target primarily people of colour in ID checks—a form of systemic discrimination that was challenged in a class action lawsuit filed in 2021 by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others. In the banlieues, as the lawyer for Nahel’s family said last week, it’s “quite rare for a young man never to have been controlled or arrested by the police”. And it’s not simply the probability of being checked or arrested that rises if one’s skin colour is dark, but that of being mistreated, beaten or killed, sometimes in a heartbeat, too. Out of 37 deaths recorded during police operations in 2021, 10 were shot dead. The very circumstances of the Nanterre tragedy are awfully familiar. Nahel died just like Aboubakar Fofana, a young black man from Nantes, shot and killed in his car by the police in 2018; Olivio Gomes, a young black man from Poissy, shot three times and killed in his car by the police in 2020; and Rayana, a 21-year-old Arab woman from Paris, shot and killed in a friend’s car by the police in 2022. Only a week before Nahel’s death, another young man called Alhousseim Camara, 19, was shot and killed in his car by the police near Angoulême, western France. All were trying to escape police checks, a situation the police call refus d’obtempérer (“refusal to comply”), which, to the police, apparently justifies the life-threatening act of pointing a gun at someone at point blank range.

The list of victims of French police brutality, most of them young Arab and black men, was growing long before the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. But since modern France came to be while the Algerian War raged, its police has never truly questioned its racist nature. On 17th October 1961, as Algerians fought for their independence in North Africa, French police repressed Algerians who were protesting a curfew applied only to them by marching in Paris. The police opened fire into the crowd of marchers and threw some of them in the Seine river. The exact figure of how many people died that day has never been known; it oscillates between dozens and a hundred. On the night between the 5th and 6th December 1986, amid protests against a reform of the university system, Malik Oussekine and Abdel Benyahia, two young Arab men, were killed by the police—Oussekine was beaten to death by the motorcycle police unit, Voltigeurs, while Benyahia was shot. In 2005, Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, fleeing a police check, died by electrocution as they hid in a power station in Clichy-sous-Bois, triggering three weeks of unrest in the banlieues. In 2016, Adama Traoré, a young black man from Beaumont-sur-Oise, died in custody after a violent arrest during which, just like George Floyd in 2020, he repeatedly warned the three policemen sitting on his chest that he couldn’t breathe. He was celebrating his 24th birthday and had fled a police check because he did not have his ID with him.

The youth rioting today in the Paris banlieues, and across the country, know all of these stories; they know it could have been their names instead of Nahel’s, written on all the walls and pavements, asking for a justice they don’t believe will ever come to pass. None of the officers who killed Malik Oussekine, Abdel Benyahia or Adama Traoré went to prison. Despite all of this, when on 30th June the United Nations called on France to address the “deep issues” of racism within its police, the Paris police prefect responded: “There is no racism in the police.” And there is no police violence, either, president Emmanuel Macron told a crowd in 2019, five months into the yellow vests crisis: “Don’t speak of police violence. These words are unacceptable under the state of law.” Yet violent cops are rewarded, by both their hierarchy who turn a blind eye, and by supporters within the general public who seemingly share their worldview: a crowdfunding set up in support of the officer responsible for Nahel’s death had raised over €1 million as of midday on Monday. Burning cars and pillaging shops will not bring Nahel back, nor will it solve the banlieues’ raging poverty, worsened by Covid and rampant inflation, but the violence of the riots cannot be dissociated from France’s history of racism, colonialism and police brutality. In ignoring its roots, the French authorities are fanning the flames of the banlieues’ anger. Unacceptably, unjustifiably.