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On the Anti-Racist Revolt in France

State Repression of the Summer 2023 Uprising

December 12, 2023

On June 27, in Nanterre, a disenfranchized suburb (commonly referred to as a banlieue) of Paris, Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old teenager, was shot dead in cold blood by French police during a traffic stop. The police officer claimed that he feared for his life, but a video released a few hours after the murder clearly shows that the vehicle Nahel was driving posed no immediate danger to the assassin.

A few hours after the murder, another video was posted on social media, in which an angry ambulance driver lashed out at Nanterre’s police officers. In his outrage, he predicted violence, an uprising, which would take place that very evening in Nanterre to avenge Nahel’s death. Reality surpassed his expectations: that very evening, an uprising erupted in Nanterre, but protest also broke out far beyond, and notably in several French banlieues, places with concentration of working class immigrants from former French colonies, especially North and West Africa, as well as their children. Protestors took to the streets, confronted the police, and burned down businesses and public buildings to demand justice for Nahel, and all others killed by police brutality.

This uprising lasted just over a week, but was unique in its intensity. Protestors successfully took the streets and confronted the police for a while, forcing it to retreat and withdraw on multiple occasions. They also managed to control the online narrative, and gained much support by showcasing a festive approach to revolutionary violence. These revolts were also far more expansive than the three-week-long 2005 uprising following the deaths of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who were electrocuted in an electrical substation while trying to escape a police identity check.

The 2005 Uprising

I experienced the uprising in 2005 first-hand. At the time, I was studying at the Lycée Maurice Utrillo in Stains, then ranked the second worst high-school in France (I had a great time there). In 2005, those who rose up were often older than us high-schoolers, they were done with school and, like so many young people in the banlieues to this day, found themselves without work or opportunities. Humiliation and police violence were part of their daily lives. I wasn’t directly involved in the uprisings, but I felt an immediate sympathy for the protestors because, in many ways, my situation was similar to theirs. I lived in an underserved community, I was regularly harassed by the police with identity checks, I often experienced Islamophobia, I attended a school that actually looked like a prison, I saw talented people around me struggling with finding housing or jobs because of their religion or ethnicity, and I had friends and classmates who had to give up on wearing hijab because, in 2004, a law made it illegal in schools.

I had little political awareness at the time. I was 15, I was doing pretty well at school. I didn’t even vaguely think of myself as a Marxist, a communist, or revolutionary. I didn’t really understand the uprisings really or their point, I just felt that the rebels were right. This feeling was reinforced when, three days later, during one of the most important nights of the holy month of Ramadan, the police, chasing a group of protestors, fired tear gas into a mosque during Tarawih, a prayer usually attended by very large numbers. Several people were knocked unconscious, and if this mosque was anything like the basement we used as a mosque where I lived in Saint-Denis, I am astonished that there were no fatalities, given the large number of elderly people attending Tarawih and the almost non-existent ventilation.

After some ten days of revolt, the French state decreed a state of emergency, a measure conceived by France when it was dealing with the end of its colonial war in Algeria in 1955, and which had only been used once since, in 1985 in New Caledonia to quell another decolonization movement. France’s state of emergency grants exceptional power to the state and dramatically extends police prerogatives. The revolt was then smothered by a brutal crackdown.

Anti-Arab and Islamophobic racism permeates both French intellectual production and pop culture.

The context of the revolts of 2023

In the summer of 2023, many journalists were raising the question of when Emmanuel Macron would resort to this state of emergency to quell the rebellion. They missed the point, because the state of emergency had already been normalized. In 2015, the third state of emergency in the history of the Fifth Republic was decreed by then-President François Hollande. The measure claimed to respond to attacks carried out by ISIS on French territory, but was largely used to terrorize thousands of Muslims living in France through violent police raids and arbitrary house arrests. It was also used to stop climate activists from attending a protest taking part during the COP21. 

The state of emergency was renewed several times, but, in 2017, then-presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, appearing at the time as some sort of socially conscious anti-racist liberal, promised to put an end to it while also denouncing Islamophobia. Once elected, it only took a few months for Emmanuel Macron to keep his promise: the state of emergency was over. But, as it is often the case with Macron, there were a bunch of worms in the apple. The new president only ended the state of emergency after passing a so-called counterterrorism bill (loi SILT) that brought part of the state of emergency measures into ordinary law. This law incorporated into the legislative arsenal measures such as the establishment of security perimeters (in which movement is regulated and everyone is subject to identity checks without probable cause), the ability to close mosques as well as Muslim-owned businesses and schools, and house arrests as well as house raids for anyone suspected to be linked with a terrorist action, whether the administration could prove it or not.  It marked the beginning of a permanent state of emergency.

This, in part, explains why the revolts of 2023 were crushed much more quickly than those of 2005. The state of emergency was there from the beginning, enabling ferocious police repression. Counter-insurgency tactics, inherited from colonial contexts, and more specifically from the Algerian war, were deployed with even greater vigor than in 2005. Militarized law enforcement units, such as the RAID and BRI, were quickly deployed against the protestors. The scenes were horrifying: one young man was held down at point-blank range by a policeman brandishing a shotgun; another, Hedi, 22 years old, was not even taking part in the uprisings when he was beaten up by policemen so much so that he lost part of his skull; in the same city, Marseille, and on the same night, Mohamed Bendriss, a 27 years old Algerian man, was killed by the police. Several hundred people, whether or not they had taken part in the uprisings, were injured, some ending up in comas.

Judicial punishment was also severe. In 2005, 763 prison sentences were handed down, while in 2023, for an uprising that lasted a third as long, 1,787 people received prison sentences. Thanks to the work of independent journalists, activists, and the Antiracist Legal Team that formed around the events, the public was able to follow what happened in court. Sentencing was extremely harsh. One protestor, for example, received a 10-month prison sentence for stealing an energy drink. For non-whites who are not French citizens, the picture was even worse, as their convictions were often paired with a deportation process to countries of origin that they often had not seen since early childhood.

The penalties handed down by the same judge for similar offenses also varied radically depending on whether or not the accused was white–with one exception. White protestors who were identified as being part of antifascist organizations were also heavily punished for their participation in the uprisings. But, more often than not, white youth that took part in the uprising did not suffer brutal repression. One video, for example, showed two visibly white protestors approached by the police, who simply assumed they were not protestors and asked them in which direction rioters had gone.

Behind the revolts, behind the death of Nahel–who was born to a Moroccan father and an Algerian mother–there is evidently a racist dynamic. If anything, the way in which the police cracked down on protestors, even more violently than they did for the 2019 yellow vest movement that introduced white France to police brutality, made French state racism against Black and North African people even more clear. 

France tries to hide its racism behind the even more brutal reality in the United States, arguing that racism exists in France but is much worse in the US. It has done so for years, welcoming Black American artists and intellectual elites with open arms in the middle of the 20th century while simultaneously oppressing Black people and other people of color in both its colonies and in mainland France (this dynamic is well narrated in The Stone Face written by William Gardner Smith). Today, political elites in France even claim that there is no police violence in France and that activists and researchers calling it out are merely transposing US issues to the French context. One could indeed compare police violence in France and the United States. However, there’s little value in trying to rank them and ultimately determining whether France or the United States is the more racist society. As Fanon famously said, “a society is either racist or it is not. There are no degrees of racism. One cannot say that a given country is racist but that lynchings or extermination camps are not to be found there. The truth is that all that and still other things exist on the horizon.”

Like in the U.S., anti-Black racism is one of the prime forms of racism in France. It comes from a long history that goes back, among other roots, to France’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade, and the use of black slaves in French colonies. Traces of it are also abundant in the writing of the enlightenment philosophers. 

But the French brand of racism also gravitates around anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia which has historical roots in the crusades and colonization, and permeates both French intellectual production and pop culture. Other forms of racism (anti-Roma, anti-Asian, anti-Desi) certainly also exist and structure the life of non-white people in France, but anti-Black and anti-Arab racism are the main elements of the two-pronged racist legacy of France. In later years the latter form has been supercharged by an Islamophobia that is more easily directed toward Arab and North African people (associated, through stereotyping to Islam), but also extends to Black Muslims. 

Nahel’s murder in Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris, was the trigger, or rather the liberating force, of an anger that permeates the Black and North African / Arab youth of France living in impoverished neighborhoods. After the end of the Second World War, several shantytowns sprang up on the outskirts of France’s major cities. One of them, in Nanterre, was home to a large Algerian immigrant population. In the squalor of this shantytown, part of the Algerian resistance to French colonialism was organized, a resistance that was often repressed by law enforcement. From the early 1960s, shantytowns were gradually dismantled to make way for project housing. It was in one of these buildings that Nahel lived with his mother.

Low-income, working class neighborhoods do exist in the inner cities of France, but French banlieues are also often poor/working-class areas. Some, like Nanterre, have emerged from, or at least been home to, shantytowns. Areas like Nanterre, so-called “difficult” suburbs, are a common sight in France. They concentrate in non-white, poor or working-class populations. They receive less public funding, unemployment rates are higher (especially among young people) and elevators, whether literal or imagined (we speak of the social elevator in France to talk about the school system and meritocracy among others) are out of service.

For residents of these areas, humiliation is a daily occurrence. The media and political discourse constantly describe banlieues as criminals’ dens, terrorist nests, Islamist hideouts, lost territories of the republic, and havens for welfare recipients. The humiliations are also more direct, especially for the young, who are harassed by the police, subjected by them to insults, violence, identity checks, and stop-and-frisks. 

Other institutions of the French state also participate in the problem. For example, while schools do have teachers who respect their students, racist, paternalistic and condescending remarks from the teaching staff are commonplace. Racist and often Islamophobic instructions are also sent to public schools. In September 2023, while disenfranchised minorities went back to schools struggling with a lack of equipment and teachers, the French State decided that the priority was to officially forbid loose garments worn by Muslim schoolgirls, an operation that involves daily racial and religious profiling performed by school staff. 

Groups that try to organize these neighborhoods or that try to defend their interests are vilified, threatened or even dissolved. This is even more the case since Emmanuel Macron came to power. For example, the major demonstration against Islamophobia organized by the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF) in November 2019 was discredited for its alleged connivance with Islamism. Two years later, the CCIF was disbanded by Macron’s government on the grounds that by denouncing Islamophobia, the CCIF was producing a rhetoric of victimhood that fed radicalization and terrorism. 

More recently, the annual demonstration of the Collectif Justice pour Adama, an organization fighting against police violence was outlawed just a few days after Nahel’s death. A rally organized to replace it was violently repressed by the police, who went so far as to brutalize Youssouf Traoré, the brother of Adama Traoré, killed by the police in 2016 in a chokehold similar to the one that took the life of George Floyd in the United States. Youssef Traoré was also put in the same dangerous and much-criticized chokehold.

Nahel was the victim of a racist police crime. But it is neither the first nor the last in France. Since a law was passed in 2017 allowing police officers to use their firearms more freely, the death toll has risen almost every year. According to journalist Sihame Assbague, who specializes in police brutality, the police killed 30 people in 2019, 46 in 2020, 53 in 2021 and 39 in 2022 although the number is expected to be revised upwards. And then, there are those like Nordine A. who survived, but who are still harassed by the criminal justice system. In 2021, while driving home one evening with his wife, Merryl B. (pregnant at the time), a car blocked him off while three men aggressively attempted to break into his car. The scene took place at 1:30 a.m. in a neighborhood considered to be dangerous. Nordine was frightened and tried to escape. He was shot seven times, his wife received one bullet in the back. They both survived, but not the child Merryl was carrying. The three assailants were in fact police officers, although there was no visible indication of their status. The case of the police officers was only examined by the judiciary when, at the end of 2022, Nordine was given a two-year prison sentence for violence and resisting arrest.

Nahel’s death is clearly not an isolated event that suddenly unleashed the anger of an entire generation. It is the result of a system of racist and class-based oppression that is part of France’s long colonial and post-colonial history. We could mention police disappearances and assassinations, such as the infamous “Bigard shrimps” during the Algerian war, or when, around October 17, 1961 in Paris, French police killed over 200 people, mainly Algerians, braving a curfew to demonstrate peacefully for Algerian independence. This history has produced a brutal and constantly reinvented doctrine of counter-insurgency to discipline and punish post-colonial people, and in particular Blacks and Arabs/North Africans. 

Since then, France has also reinvented its insurgents. While “insurgents” may still participate in independence movements in French-controlled territories outside mainland France, they may also be considered Islamist separatists, separatists from the banlieues or intellectuals, artists, or political figures who “divide the republic”: all fantasies that keep the French State machine running, and grinding any form of opposition.

Summer is long gone, the revolts are long gone, but the repression they unleashed is still with us.

The Politics of the Uprising

It is from this perspective that we must understand the uprisings that followed Nahel’s death. Yes, not all the protestors were politicized, but sociologists show that anger in the suburbs is political, even if it’s not always expressed in the terminology we would like to hear. How can we fail to see politics when dozens of sneakers, looted from shopping malls, were stacked up and set alight? How can we fail to see politics when a luxury sports car was used to batter down the doors of an Aldi discount store, to the cheers of the rest of the protestors? How can we fail to see politics when one of the targets of the protestors was to destroy or open French prisons? How can we fail to see “looting” as an act of reappropriation in the context of a crisis in which multinationals are posting record profits and prices are being kept artificially high. These revolts were for Nahel, for all victims of police brutality, but also for the protestors themselves and for all of us who have suffered and continue to suffer the violence of the French modern state capitalist project.

At the end, repression intensified, and footage of the uprisings disappeared, diligently removed by tech giants eager to play the role of censor for the government of their right-hand man, Emmanuel Macron. The revolution would not be Tweeted (or Snapchatted, Tiktoked or Instagrammed) because why would the biggest tech companies, run by the biggest billionaires, go against the interests of the ruling class?

Summer is long gone, the revolts are long gone, but the repression they unleashed is still with us. As during the uprisings, numerous people have been arrested and prosecuted for comments made on social media in relation to the genocide taking place in Gaza. As during the uprisings, peaceful gatherings for Gaza were banned and brutally repressed by the police. At the same time, the policeman who murdered Nahel has been released amidst widespread indifference on the part of the mainstream media, undoubtedly too busy relaying Israeli propaganda and laying the blame for French anti-Semitism at the door of its Muslim population.

After Nahel’s murder, people, especially people who don’t live in France or in affected neighborhoods, often asked me if things were getting better. They were implying that things would be better if the violence stopped. They were often worried about me and my loved ones, and I appreciate that. But I am not sure things are better because the uprising is behind us. The uprising was important and necessary. It was the expression of revolutionary violence, not against a system that failed us, but against a system that was precisely designed to go against our interests: the interests of the poor, of the working class, and of Black and Brown people in France.


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