Nahel killing puts spotlight on France that got left behind

Not race or religion, Macron’s policies, discrimination & long-term neglect at heart of a burning France


July 2, 2023

/ By / Paris

Nahel killing puts spotlight on France that got left behind

Violence after Nahel killing is more about a neglected suburban & rural France than race or religion.

The outbreak of almost unprecedented violence that followed the killing of a young man highlights the malaise that has gripped the French society and governance, with the long-term neglect, by leaders, notably Macron, of suburban and rural France.

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Large parts of France, including immediate suburbs of the capital Paris and many large towns, have been gripped by intense rioting for the past five days.

The rioting, that began after French police shot dead at point blank a young man, has been unprecedented in scale, as buses, trams, buildings and shops were burnt down over four days, while the police struggled to regain control of the streets. In many ways, the current riots are even more widespread and violent than the last major rioting that erupted in 2005.

And of course with the rise of social media over the last 18 years, the riot, its reasons and the scale have all been broadcast and interpreted or reinterpreted dozens of times.

So bad had the situation become that President Emmanuel Macron had to miss a meeting of the European Council, the body where leaders of all 27-member states gather, in Brussels, while his government and ministers struggled to respond and control the situation and the damage.

On Friday, after an emergency meeting of his government, Macron announced several measures that clearly outlined his focus and his own interpretation of what the riots reflect.

As would follow any such incident, a dozen interpretations have already sprung up all around, especially in arm-chair, opinionated and almost toxic journalism that Indian media has come to define in the past few years.

The Spark

France's welcome mat for refugees is fraying at the edges.

Trigger Happy: Last year 13 persons were killed by police in France for not stopping when asked

The origin of the riots lies in the point blank shooting, or even cold-blooded murder of a 17-year-old youth, Nahel, by police at a traffic stop in Nanterre, a working class, poor suburb of Paris, just a couple of km from the hyper-chic suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine and La Defense, the corporate heart of France, with headquarters of almost all top French and multinational companies.

Initially, the police tried to cover up, saying that Nahel tried to harm the policemen during the stop by trying to run them over, but soon enough videos emerged showing that Nahel had stopped, with two policemen pointing guns at him and one shooting him in the head, moments after threatening to do so.

The emergence of the video led to a sharp criticism of the police by almost all political and social leaders, including Macron who said that the death of a young man can not be justified. The policeman who shot Nahel has been arrested and charged with murder. Nahel’s co-passengers in the car, who managed to escape, put the blame squarely on the police for the killing.

Son of a working mother, a single parent, Nahel was working as a takeaway delivery driver and was studying to be an electrician. The killing immediately led to sharp reaction from the area where Nahel lived and was reportedly popular as a friendly person.

The murder has also drawn strong condemnation from French football team, notably the French captain Kylian Mbappé, as well as leading French filmstar Omar Sy. The French football team has subsequently called for an end to violence, saying that it was time to mourn an innocent young man’s death and not for violence.

Police atrocities in focus

Nahel’s murder led to protests that were initially limited to Nanterre. But within hours as the truth behind his shooting emerged, the protests spread across the country, including over 1500 km to the south of Nanterre, in the coastal town of Marseilles.

The anger sparked by the killing may appear disproportionate at the first glance, but this was not a random incident of its kind. In the past year, police have shot and killed at least 13 persons in a similar fashion, only for not stopping when asked to.

The French police has turned noticeably trigger happy over the past few years, especially since a new law in 2017 eased the rules around when they could use their guns. Ironically, this law was passed in the wake of the deadly terrorist attacks that had rocked Paris and Brussels just over a year earlier.

While killing is the extreme, police atrocities in France are widely reported and recorded. The country which was site of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 has regularly been called out over the past two decades by European institutions, including European Court of Human Rights and NGOs like Amnesty International for its racist and discriminatory police. France has regularly trawled the bottom of the European Union nations in this aspect.

Just last month, at the United Nations, the French got sermons by the United States, Russia and Iran to curb its police whose violence was seen to have gotten out of hands.

Months earlier, in November 2022, a report by the French government, submitted to the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Justice highlighted the widespread practice of discrimination and violence by the French police, especially targetting Arab and African youth.

Discrimination beyond law & order

But, Africans and Arabs do not have to endure widespread discrimination only at the hands of the police, they suffer from the same fate across the spectrum of the society, from education to employment and from housing to health.

According to the French Inequality Report 2023, the average income of the poorest living in areas like Nanterre was 844 euros per month, while the richest 10 pc in better off areas like Neuilly-sur-Seine is 3600 euros. The best schools, even though public, remain the exclusive domain of the Anglosaxon communities, with a rare Arab or African getting in.

Unemployment in these parts, which also include villages, is often as high as 35 pc, as against national average of barely 8 pc. The discrimination is even seen in life expectancy as the rich have an average expectancy of 84.4 years, while the residents of the ‘other France’ can at best expect to live to be 71 years old.

No more a land of immigrants

France's welcome mat for refugees is fraying at the edges.

No more a welcoming land for refugees

Unlike the reports appearing in Indian media and notably social media handles of some famous ‘journalists’, the rioters are a mix of Arabs, Africans as well as the Anglosaxon French and practically none of them are migrants from Syria or other Middle Eastern countries who fled in large numbers following the war launched by the Western nations on Syria in 2011.

True, over a million refugees landed in Europe, but most of them were provided a shelter by Germany, where the then Chancellor Angela Merkel, had to pay a heavy political price for her humanitarian gesture. Barely a few hundred may have come to France. In fact, French police and border guards are regularly involved in stand offs with their counterparts from Italy as France pushes back migrants from Africa who try to land at European shores, after undertaking dangerous, often fatal, crossings in the Mediterranean Sea.

Almost all the people allegedly involved in the riots not only born in France, but are 2nd or 3rd generation migrants, whose grandparents were actually invited and cajoled to come in 1960s, by the then President Charles de Gaulle, to help in reconstruction of a post-war France.

Over 60 years later, despite dozens of reports of widespread poverty and lack of amenities like schools and hospitals, as well as high unemployment, not much has been done by successive governments.

The gap between the haves and haves not has become even more exacerbated under President Macron, who since 2017 has been implementing policies clearly favouring the top 5 pc of the French population, often at the cost of the most poor.

The months-long protests by Gilet Jaunes (yellow vests) a few years ago was another reflection of the growing anger and widespread discontent amongst the French who believe they have been left behind by Macron, who they believe is only pandering to his investment banker friends.

After his speech at the end of the Emergency Meeting of the government on Friday, it would have been nice to hear Macron announce some measures to curb this gap and to acknowledge the gnawing wounds. Instead, he chose to turn a blind eye yet again to the root cause of the riots and focus on his usual strong-arm tactics.

Until the French State acknowledges the existence of the ‘Other France’ and takes some real measures to reverse the increasing inequality in a country whose motto reads Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the violence is set to return from time to time and on each recurrence much harsher than ever before.



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