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5 July 2023

France’s forces of law and disorder

French police have declared themselves “at war” with rioters. How did the state’s protectors become a threat to its future?

By Didier Fassin

A 17-year-old named Nahel was shot by Paris police at point-blank range on 27 June. Too young to have a driving licence, he had fled when they tried to stop his car but was blocked at a red light and caught by two officers. In their report, the police wrote that the driver had tried to hit them with his car, forcing them to shoot. But an eyewitness video emerged that revealed something different.

The two officers are seen at the driver’s window, one of them threatening Nahel, saying, “I’ll put a bullet in your head,” and the other shouting “Shoot him!” as the car rolls away. (One of the passengers later explained that his friend, having been struck several times with the butts of the officers’ guns, was stunned and had involuntarily removed his foot from the brake.) The shot was not in the head, but in the heart. Had this not been filmed, the incident would have been one more case of someone being “legally” shot dead after a refusal to comply with police orders.

According to a 2017 law enacted by François Hollande’s Socialist government, the police are allowed to use their weapons when drivers “do not obey the order to stop and whose occupants are likely to perpetrate, in their flight, harm to their lives, their physical safety or that of others”. This criterion has been interpreted broadly, and has been used to authorise the shooting of passengers who have been deemed dangerous. The law was a response to police complaints in October 2016 after officers had suffered burns when their car was set on fire by youths in the La Grande Borne housing estate, near Paris. It was the last in a series of laws extending the prerogatives of law-enforcement agents.

Asked about the incident at the National Assembly on 28 June, the minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin, declared – contradicting data published by his own administration – that the number of police shootings and killings “has decreased since 2017”. In fact, a study based on figures from 2011 to 2021 showed that deadly shootings by police have increased fivefold since the reform. In Germany, one person has been killed by police for a refusal to comply in the past ten years. In France, it is one every month.

These facts, along with the video disproving the officers’ testimony about the killing of Nahel, fuelled a sense of shock and anger among youths from disadvantaged neighbourhoods – not only in Nanterre, the suburb in the west of Paris where he was shot, but across the country. For several nights in a row, cars and bins were set on fire, and police stations, municipal buildings and schools were partially destroyed. It was a situation that evoked the disorder of 2005 following the deaths of two adolescents who were electrocuted as they were chased by police.

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Hoping to appease the widespread indignation, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said the police action was “unexplainable and inexcusable”. His sentiments were laudable, perhaps, but neither adjective reflected the experience of the inhabitants of French housing estates, especially among ethnic minorities. For them, the killing is perfectly explicable in the context of the aggression and brutality of police interventions in their neighbourhoods. Fatal shootings have been systematically excused by the police administration and dismissed by the courts.

In his account of peasants’ rebellions in 18th-century England, the British historian EP Thompson proposed the concept of a “moral economy” – a set of norms and obligations established within traditional societies. When these were violated, poor farmers violently reacted against the injustice. A similar analysis can be applied to the recent events in France.

As I have witnessed during 15 months in which I accompanied the police on patrols, youths from housing estates – many of them black or of North African descent – endure, on a daily basis, harassment, humiliation, slaps, insults and racist slurs, as well as being regularly stopped and frisked. As they grow up, they are taught by their parents and older siblings to expect the police to provoke them when in public spaces – and not to respond for fear of being arrested and prosecuted for contempt and disobedience. This is why they often refer to themselves second-class citizens. But when one of them is killed, this minimal social contract is broken.

[See also: Letter from Marseille: the lawless metropolis]

The UN and the European Court of Human Rights have criticised France for the racism and violence of its police, but French governments have always denied the accusations. Seen from other European countries, the brutality of French law enforcement in its policing of public demonstrations and poor neighbourhoods often elicits amazement. In March 2019, during the gilets jaunes unrest – during which a number of protesters lost either a hand or an eye thanks to police ordnance – Macron argued that talk of “police repression” or “police violence” was “unacceptable”.

The reason for this systematic denial of police brutality is the strength of the police unions. After the French publication of my book Enforcing Order (2011), the then Socialist minister of the interior, Manuel Valls, told me he agreed with my analysis of misconduct in urban policing, but that the unions’ power made it difficult to reform the police.

Over the years the unions’ influence has increased, as has their radicalism. Since the mid-2010s, several studies have shown that more than half of law enforcement agents vote for the hard right: 67 per cent of active police officers voted for Marine Le Pen in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, compared to 21 per cent of the general population.

On the third day of the riots that followed Nahel’s death, the two main unions, Alliance and UNSA Police, published a virulent statement, in which they declared that, “confronted by such savage hordes”, it was necessary to fight these “pests” and “warn the government” that, “in the absence of adequate measures”, they considered themselves “at war”, and that “Tomorrow we will be in resistance”. That there was no official reaction to this threat of sedition is a sign of the government’s fear of the unions and its complicity with them.

The news has now moved on from the killing to the urban unrest that followed it, shifting indignation from the former to the latter. A fund in support of the police officer who shot the boy received more donations than the one established to help Nahel’s mother.

Once more, the deep causes of the problems facing disadvantaged communities and the breakdown in their relationships with the police have been overlooked. The resources of the politique de la ville, a set of state policies to improve the quality of life on housing estates through urban renovation, citizens’ participation and anti-discrimination programmes, have been reduced in recent years. These neighbourhoods’ state schools have the highest proportion of absentee teachers in the country. Racial discrimination is rife on the job market, causing significant unemployment. The repressive state has replaced the welfare state.

When he was elected in 2017, Macron’s experience was that of a former banker who had been promoted to minister of the economy. His programme was one of neoliberal policies, such as slashing unemployment benefits and raising the retirement age. He was not prepared to face popular discontent, be it from people wearing yellow vests, those demanding pension reform, or minority youths. He gave all the leeway to the police and their unions. Like his predecessors, he is now passing up the opportunity to launch an independent investigation – one that could lead to reform of law enforcement in a country where the police are becoming a threat to democracy and the republic itself.

Didier Fassin is a professor at the Collège de France and author of “Enforcing Order: An Ethnography of Urban Policing” (Polity)

[See also: The rotten heart of the French republic]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia