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5 July 2023

The rotten heart of the French republic

The crisis in France only benefits the hard right, who will exploit it to reshape French politics.

By Andrew Hussey

The atmosphere in Paris on Sunday 2 July was subdued. It was a serious contrast to the previous five nights, when escalating violence and disorder spread across the country following the 27 June shooting of 17-year-old Nahel by a police officer in a suburb of Paris. Gérald Darmanin, France’s minister of the interior, announced that Saturday 1 July had been a “calmer night”: there had only been around 700 arrests across the country, compared with more than 1,000 the previous night. On Sunday morning in southern Paris I set out to gauge the mood for myself.

The street market on Rue d’Alésia was as busy and lively as ever. People were walking their dogs or sitting outside on café terrasses to chat and enjoy a bright midsummer morning. I stopped at an épicerie supermarket on the Rue Pernety. The owner, Belaid Moussem, who is a native of Algeria but has run his shop here for 30 years, was agitated. “This is not normal,” he said, describing a clash between police and teenagers he had witnessed the night before outside his shop. “I have known racism, and there are racists in France and in the police,” he said. “But this can’t be justified. It’s too much. It’s bound to affect people like me. It’s like a war, but how does it end?”

At another café nearby, a woman leaned over to comment on my newspaper, its front page splashed with the photographs of violent scenes from across France. “I feel sick,” she said. “There are no words for this behaviour. I cannot believe that this is our country.”

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

Despite the interior minister’s claims of calm, it seemed that the violence had reached a new level of intensity on Saturday night. In the small sedate town of L’Haÿ-les-Roses in the Val-de-Marne, south of Paris, a burning car was driven into the garden of its mayor, Vincent Jeanbrun, of the centre-right Republican party. Jeanbrun was not at home when it happened, but his wife and two children were forced to flee as the car burst into flames a few yards away from the front door. Jeanbrun’s wife, Mélanie, fractured her tibia as she tried to escape from the house. The regional prosecutor Stéphane Hardouin declared that he would be opening an investigation into an “attempted assassination”. Local politicians across the country reported that they had seen graffiti in their towns which read, “We know where you live. We are coming to burn you!”

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The attack on Jeanbrun’s residence and the threats to other politicians increased the already chaotic situation to a new level of tension. During the first days of rioting and looting there had been assaults on post offices, schools, crèches, tax offices, public transport – anything representing the French state. But these attacks were purely symbolic, targeting the institutions of the republic, not real people. What happened in L’Haÿ-les-Roses was the first, alleged, attempt on a politician’s life. A revolt that began as angry protests against police brutality had been elevated to rage towards the whole French state.

I spoke with a group of teenagers who were sprawled across park benches near the Square de l’Abbé Lemire in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, smoking joints and drinking Red Bull. The square, which is only a 15-minute walk from my own neighbourhood, is part of a cité (“housing estate”) that runs along the train lines out of Gare de Montparnasse down towards Porte de Vanves. The area is notorious for its drug gangs and the cité is always under close police surveillance. It is regularly the site of violent clashes between local youths and police officers. Every night since Nahel’s killing, there have been riots here until the early hours.

The youths, who wouldn’t give their names, told me they had all taken part in the riots; the battles were a thrill. They were young, ranging from 12 to 16 years old – which is typical of the rioters’ age profile. They were a racially mixed bunch — two of the boys were black, two were white and another was North African; a white girl was part of the group as well. “Nahel could have been us,” one of the boys said. “If you live in a place like this you see it all the time. I know what the police are like. You’re supposed to respect them but how can you respect them when they treat you like shit?”

Another chimed in, telling me that he had been placed under “garde à vue” (in custody) several times. “Until that happens to you, you don’t know what it’s like,” he said. “You can get picked up for nothing and then spend 24 hours in a hole that’s nine metres by nine metres. When you’re there you’re shouted at, mocked, threatened. So when you get out you’re burning with hate towards the police. You want revenge.” The rest of the group nodded.

I asked them whether the police were now getting what they deserved. “It’s not enough,” said the young North African boy, grinning. “It’s time for us to fight back. The politicians and the media are all the same,” he continued. “They hate us so we hate them.”

This sentiment encapsulates one of the most intractable problems facing the republic. Emmanuel Macron initially blundered when the protests started by attending an Elton John concert the day after the fatal shooting, but then responded to the riots with quiet defiance, coordinating with ministers and local politicians to increase police presence and restore order. This is not the first time he has faced public unrest, after grappling with the civil disruption of the gilets jaunes demonstrations between 2018 and 2020, and, more recently, the violent protests against his controversial pension reforms.

Yet these riots are different. Macron is not responsible for the conditions that have brought his country to its most recent state of near-emergency. The problems of the banlieues are many, and are not just confined to bad policing. They pre-date Macron’s presidency by decades and causes include poor housing, badly designed urbanism, systemic racism, as well as a police force that has long complained of being understaffed and overstretched. For the time being, however, Macron’s tactics seem to have worked. On the morning of 4 July, the police authorities announced that there had been another “calm night”.

The opposition has tried to capitalise on the unrest. On the left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Unbowed has blamed Macron’s government for failing to control the police. This is not a popular view, given the widespread anger among ordinary French people about the riots. The party that has most to gain from the crisis is Marine Le Pen’s hard-right National Rally. She has voters’ backing in arguing for government and police to control the rioters, not the other way around. The police officer who shot Nahel is not wanting for support: in recent days a far-right activist has managed to crowdfund €1.5m for him.

 The worst of the riots may be over, but they are bound to damage Macron’s presidency. The economic cost to shops and businesses is high. At over a billion euros, the estimated bill for the unrest is already said to be far higher than it was for the disturbances of 2005, when a similar wave of anti-police riots ripped across France for three weeks. The longer-term danger is that as the divisions in French society widen, there will be no option for dialogue or compromise.

Meanwhile, the hard right thrives on the anarchy even as it fades; the crisis could lead to the death of centrist politics in France sooner rather than later.

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada: The Long War between France and its Arabs” (Granta)

[See also: France’s forces of law and disorder]

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