World in View: France: Police murder sparks mass youth protests

July 7, 2023

France has ignored racist police violence for decades. This uprising is the price of that denial.”
Rokhaya Diallo, writer, journalist, film director and activist

“There are prisons and justice — prisons are for you, but justice isn’t.”
—Yasmina Kammour, 25, a youth worker in Nanterre

“The government always protects the police, a state within the state.
—Ahmed Djamai, interviewed at Nahel Merzouk’s funeral

“I’m afraid for my children, I don’t worry about robbers. I worry about the Republic coming for them.
—Mr. Mahjoubi, of Moroccan descent

When Nahel Merzouk, a teenager of Algerian-Moroccan descent, was shot to death by police at a traffic stop in Nanterre, a Paris suburb, the police sought to blame him. But a video with sound quickly surfaced on the Internet showing a different reality. It revealed a policeman pointing a gun directly at Nahel Merzouk, speaking about blowing his head off, and then murdering him. French youth, many of North African descent, responded with outrage, taking to city after city over five days and nights with fireworks and firebombs as their main weapons—burning automobiles and attacking shops. The police mobilization against the protesters reached 45,000. Hundreds of youth and others were arrested every night. How did France come to this explosive moment?


Message on wall protesting the murder of Nahel Merzouk. Photo by Toufik-de-Planoise, CC BY-SA 4.0

In Nanterre, where Merzouk was killed, race has long been central. Racist police practices have been characteristic of French society for decades, pervading poor immigrant working class neighborhoods. Défenseur des Droits (Defender of Rights) has documented that Black and North African youth are 20 times more likely to be stopped for identity checks than the general population. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and a UN Commission have called out the racist policies of the police and politicians.

But there is more at the root of the present moment. France, the home of liberté, égalité et fraternité, has long failed to live up to those words, particularly when it comes to Black and Arab Africans. There is France’s long colonial history, characterized by racism and paternalism. Perhaps most poisonous is the legacy of France’s long occupation of Algeria, ended only with Algeria’s war of independence (1954-1962), but continued in France with elite society’s attitude to North African and Black immigrants and their French-born descendants.

Nor should we forget President Emmanuel Macron’s treatment of France’s working class, particularly this year. In face of massive protests of hundreds of thousands, Macron insisted on jamming through his “pension reform,” forcing workers to work more years before retirement, igniting fury throughout the county.

Now a new fury is ablaze. France is very much a fractured country. Justice for Nahel Merzouk and justice for France’s working masses, are both very much on the agenda and can’t be solved by politicians’ political manipulations backed up by the brutality of their police.

Eugene Walker

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