France riots: when police shot a teenager dead, a rumbling pressure cooker exploded

Riots broke out in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris, following the lethal police shooting of a 17-year-old boy named as Nahel M. An investigation into his death is ongoing, but the situation has already triggered protest and anger. Whatever the investigation concludes, the incident forms part of a complex, deep-rooted problem in France.

It raises the memory of the violence that spread across the city’s suburbs in 2005, lasting more than three weeks and forcing the country into a state of emergency. Many of the issues behind the unrest back then remain unresolved to this day and have potentially been aggravated by ever-worsening relations between the police and the public.

During my extensive fieldwork in the suburban estates of Paris, Lyon and Marseille, I have seen and heard firsthand the grievances that are now being cried out on the streets of Nanterre.

The suburbs and poverty

Certain suburbs of large French cities have, for decades, suffered from what has been labelled the worst “hypermarginalisation” in Europe. Poor-quality housing and schooling combine with geographical isolation and racism to make it virtually impossible for people to stand a chance at improving their circumstances.

Evidence has long shown that people living in poor suburbs can expect to face discrimination based on the very fact of living in those suburbs when they apply for a job. Even just having a certain name on your CV can rule you out of employment, thanks to widespread racial discrimination.

Discontent among young people in these places has been brewing for decades as a result. The first riots of the kind currently happening in Paris took place in Lyon as far back as the 1990s.

And yet, outside moments of crisis, there appears to be practically no discussion by French leadership about how to tackle the problems that drive so much anger in the suburbs.


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President Emmanuel Macron presents himself as committed to re-industrialising France and revitalising the economy. But his vision does not include any plan for using economic growth to bring opportunity to the suburbs or, viewed the other way round, to harness the potential of the suburbs to drive economic growth.

In two presidential terms, he has failed to produce a coherent policy for solving some of the key problems of the suburbs.

Police brutality

Police brutality is a topic of great concern in France at the moment, beyond the Nanterre incident. Earlier this year, international human rights organisation the Council of Europe took the extraordinary step of directly lambasting the French police for “excessive use of force” during protests against Macron’s pension reforms.

Policing appears stuck in an all-or-nothing approach. In a recent interview I helped conduct for a documentary in the suburbs of Marseille, residents pointed to successive cuts to community-based police officers, based in the estates, as key reasons for increases in tension between the population and the police. Protests, meanwhile, are met with tear gas and batons.

Successive governments have used policing to control the population to prevent political turmoil, eroding the legitimacy of law enforcement along the way.

And yet, the police are extremely hostile to reform, a stance that is aided and abetted by their powerful unions and Macron himself, who needs the police to crush opposition to his reforms.

Macron vs Sarkozy

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy is infamous for inflaming tensions during the 2005 riots by referring to the people involved as “scum” who needed to be pressure-washed from the suburbs. Macron, too, has been repeatedly criticised for striking an arrogant, tone during his political career, making numerous gaffes including suggesting an unemployed worker only needed to “cross the street” to find work.

However, his conciliatory response to the death of Nahel could not be further removed from Sarkozy’s stance. He has called the killing “inexcusable” and held a crisis meeting to seek a solution to the crisis.

A trip to see Elton John perform while the riots occurred was perhaps not advisable and comments about young people being “intoxicated” by video games were somewhat misguided, but Macron has at least tried to calm tensions and not inflame them.

A key problem for him, however, is the diffuse, decentralised nature of the protestors. There is no leadership to meet and negotiate with, and there are no specific demands that need to be met to defuse the tension. As in 2005, the riots are occurring spontaneously, sometimes estate by estate.

That makes escalation very difficult for the government to stop. And it underscores the need for a far more wide-reaching, thoughtful response to tackle the entrenched, decades-old problems of poor social prospects and police brutality in the suburbs of French cities.


Joseph Downing is a senior lecturer in international relations and politics in the politics, history and international relations department at Aston University, where he teaches courses on researching politics, security and technology in politics and is the author of "French Muslim in Perspective: Nationalism, Post-colonialism and Marginalisation Under the Republic" (Palgrave, 2019).

Image Credit: Unsplash

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  • Thierry Wersinger
    commented 2023-07-10 10:51:55 +1000
    A Frenchman now living in the USA, I find this dishonest article placates a US leftist grid of analysis and ignores the root causes of the recent explosion of violence in France.

    To put things in perspective it is important to understand why the situation in France is very different from the American one. Black Americans visiting France since the early XXth century were amazed that they could sit at a café and be waited by a French waiter without creating a commotion. In contrast, black French citizens, members of the post-World War II French government , who later became rulers of former French African colonies, had to comply with strict US segregationist rules when they visited America.

    During the sixties, when America experienced race riots, France certainly had its share of political upheaval, but none had anything to do with race. Fifty years ago race was a non-issue in France. Out of the complex Algerian crisis, migratory tensions in France were focused on the inhuman fate of millions of « Pieds-Noirs », French residents summarily expelled from Algeria, forced to resettle with no support from their government. Despite this, in less than ten years they were able to successfully reintegrate the country of their ancestors.

    France’s immigrants until the 1970ies had been primarily Europeans who either assimilated with no major difficulties or moved back to their countries of origin.. There were very few non-European immigrants in France back then except for mostly Algerian guest workers who were let in with the understanding that they would go back to their country of origin and were not allowed to settle with their families.

    The paradigm changed in the 1980ies when the socialo-communist coalition led by François Mitterrand, opened the flood-gates of uncontrolled immigration in the backdrop of consistent opposition by the French people. Using the judiciary branch they ruthlessly nixed every attempt to control immigration. When Centre-right parties were back in power, they tried to control the most egregious forms of laxist immigration but the power of the judges supported by the elitist media spheres undermined their tepid actions. Laws made it through the legislative process either were blocked by judicial authorities in the name of « human rights » or were not enforced by a legal system in the hands of mostly leftist militant activists.
    A myriad of politically motivated associations were set up, funneling government subsidies from complicit layers of the bureaucracy and international organizations that in many cases cooperate actively with human traffickers to save migrants from drowning in the open sea. This encourages a steady flow of mostly male immigrants determined to use every possibility to take advantage of generous social benefits and to provide cheap labor to a sub economy that includes drug dealers and other criminal organizations in need of foot soldiers. Laws set up to help political refugees such as Solzhenitsyn are completely diverted from their purpose. It is not uncommon for so called political refugees to visit their countries of origin as soon as they have managed to gain a foothold in France.
    Sadly many well-meaning compassionate people including some of the highest levels of the Catholic Church hierarchy have confused compassion for laxism thus becoming the useful fools of an uncontrolled immigration process that is only two generations away from turning France and many other European countries into African colonies.

    The notion that France has abandoned these immigrants letting them rot in the suburbs is a fallacy. France, the country with highest taxes in the world is sinking in debt after funneling billions of Francs now Euros into plans to redevelop the suburbs abandoned by legacy French inhabitants replaced by non-European immigrants, many from the underclass of their countries of origin with no intention to assimilate. These areas have become enclaves of unfettered violence inflicted by semi-illiterate individuals manipulated by drug dealers and Islamists of various flavors. They believe they are above the law and don’t respond to police’s action rendered ineffective by a judicial bureaucracy that would amaze even Kafka. At the same time, more traditional rural areas of France are completely abandoned by the authorities triggering the recent “Gilets Jaunes” (yellow Jacket) movements.
    France with close to 70 million inhabitants has allowed 20 million people of non european origin to settle. Most are French citizens, with a high proportion with dual citizenship, having kept the nationality of their ancestors which they value far more than their French nationality, a pure administrative convenience allowing access to generous benefits. They respond to the admonitions of the islamist goverments of Turkey and Algeria who openly encourage them to see themselves as the vanguard of an ethnic invasion but despise anything related to their country of residence.

    Benefits once allowed France to keep a vibrant demography, empowering middle-class families promoting healthy life-styles, common sense values and respect of law and order. The French school system by many measures second to none adhered to rigorous meritocracy that helped promote many from the lowest classes to the summit of French society. Even those who did not make it to the top were literate and able to find a place in society. This system has been destroyed by calamitous reforms defined and implemented by leftist nihilistic ideologues with the complicity of a hedonist society led by narcistic influencers determined to protect their privileges by undermining common-sense middle class values leading society to embrace every woke fad.

    The article rightly identifies the death of a seventeen year old non European French citizen as the trigger for the recent riots. However trying to present him as the innocent victim of police brutality and racism is abjectly dishonest. The death of any human and even more of a seventeen year old is always a tragedy. The reality is that Nahel was a dangerous criminal perpetrator of more than 10 very serious crimes even if he can have no record because an axiom of the legal system is that minors can not have a criminal record. In any ordered society when a criminal resist arrest, the priority of the police is to neutralize such a criminal with the most immediate means available to them. Those that allowed Nahel to accumulate crimes without punishing him at his first offense, his delinquent parents are the ones who have Nahel’s blood on their hands.
  • Michael Cook
    commented 2023-07-09 12:23:56 +1000
    There is an interesting comment on the riots in Unherd: “the more that violence consumes the French streets, the closer the far-Right comes to power.” Worth reading.
  • Thierry Wersinger
    followed this page 2023-07-08 02:16:22 +1000
  • David Young
    followed this page 2023-07-05 02:01:54 +1000
  • Joseph Downing