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Unrest in the Banlieues: Scrutinizing Racism, Class Divide and Police-Public Tension in France

On the morning of Tuesday, June 27, in Nanterre, a suburb northwest of Paris, a yellow car was stopped by two policemen for violating traffic regulations. The video taken by witnesses showed that when the yellow car was still at a standstill, two police officers were standing by the driver’s side door, pointing their guns into the window, and then the car suddenly started, and a gunshot sounded almost simultaneously. The car crashed into the pavement after advancing tens of meters . According to official confirmation, the dead driver, Nahel M., was a 17-year-old French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan origin.

Although immediately after the incident, an anonymous police source revealed to the media that the reason for the police shooting was that the driver tried to ram the police with his car, but the video of the scene went viral on the Internet, and more information about Naher emerged one after another. , People learned that he came from a working-class community in the suburbs of Paris. He was the only son raised by a single mother.

In an interview with French TV 5, Nahel’s mother accused the police officer of the shooting, “He saw a child who looked like an Arab and wanted to take his life.” Although she said she did not want to blame the entire police force power, but Naher’s death can no longer be cast as an ordinary law enforcement accident. It evokes deep unease. A female cleaning worker told the “Guardian” reporter, “When my colleagues wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning to clean, look at the other workers around us, we are all black, North African. France is divided, and This police shooting brings it all to the fore. That boy was not the first person to be killed by police and we all woke up today thinking it could have been my nephew or my son. ”

The questioning of public opinion quickly turned to whether race played a decisive role in Naher’s death? Is there racism in law enforcement in France?

The ignited protest sentiment spread like a wildfire. Starting in Nanterre, where the incident took place, people rallied, chanting “Justice for Naher”. The expressions of outrage did not stop at the peaceful marches. In the next few days, from Paris, Marseille, and Lyon to Toulouse, Nice, Nantes, and Bordeaux, violent vandalism occurred in more than a dozen major cities in France. In the footage of the riots captured in various places, most of the activists were young people wearing black clothes and covering their faces. public Utilities.

Three days after the start of the unrest, the situation intensified when the French interior minister announced the deployment of 45,000 police officers on the streets of the country for the “next decisive hours”. On June 30, in the southeastern city of Marseille, a bus carrying a Chinese tour group was besieged and attacked by more than a dozen rioters. The windows of the bus were smashed, and several tourists were slightly injured. That same night, more than 1,300 rioters were arrested across France. According to government officials, in the first five days of the riots, more than 5,600 vehicles were set on fire across France, more than 1,000 shops, restaurants and banks were looted or even completely burned, and more than 200 police officers were injured.

The unrest lasted for several days, reminiscent of similar situations in 2005. In October 2005, in a community where ethnic minorities gathered in the eastern suburbs of Paris, three teenagers hid in a high-voltage electrical box to avoid police pursuit. Among them, a 15-year-old black boy and a 17-year-old Arab boy were electrocuted and died. The incident sparked riots in dozens of cities, with more than 6,000 cars set ablaze in two weeks and international media headlined “Paris is burning”. In the end, the then French President Jacques Chirac had to declare a state of emergency across the country, relying on a curfew on the 12th to gradually contain the chaotic situation.

Suburban Youth and the Police

According to the French Minister of the Interior, in recent days, the average age of the rioters arrested by the police is 17 years old, and one-third of them are minors. President Macron also attributed the severity of the riots partly to the age of the rioters, saying that some teenagers “revisited the video games that made them intoxicated on the street”, and parents should take more responsibility and look after their children. On the Chinese Internet, a video of a father stuffing his troubled son, who appeared to be a junior high school student at best, into the trunk of his car was also widely circulated.

But to many long-time observers of French politics, more concerning than the young age of the participants is how many of them hail from the banlieues (suburbs). In French, banlieues is not a purely geographical peri-urban area, but has gradually developed over the past few decades into a negative social concept, that is, a ghetto dominated by immigrants. The American writer George Packer (George Packer) once described that the suburbs are full of huge concrete high-rises built after the war. Suburbs appear to be more closely associated with crime after three young Arabs staged a terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in 2010.

“Immigration riots in the suburbs are the main manifestation of ethnic conflicts in France.” Liu Lida, deputy director of the Public Policy Department of the School of Government and Management at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told this publication. Liu Lida has long been concerned about immigration policies and ethnic integration issues in various countries. She once concluded that immigrant riots in France generally start with confrontations with the police, with beating, smashing, looting and burning as the main behavior. Similar riots occur frequently. The scale of the riots varies from large to small, and the small ones usually last for a few days. The largest riot before that was in 2005, which spread from the suburbs of Paris to the whole country.

After the outbreak of the riots, Joseph Downing (Joseph Downing), a senior lecturer in international relations and political science at Aston University, wrote an article pointing out that the dissatisfaction of suburban youths has accumulated for decades, and they see no hope of integrating into mainstream French society. A survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also pointed out that compared with most other developed countries, children born and educated in poor areas of France have less chance of breaking out of socio-economic backgrounds. One of the most unequal systems in the world.

“In France, there is no official data on the proportion of North African or black minorities in the population.” Liu Lida explained to this magazine that the French immigrant integration model is rooted in the French philosophy of universalism, and everyone is just an individual citizen of France. The existence of minorities as groups is not recognized. In this model, various social policies are formulated based on the principle of equal opportunity, and do not specifically support a certain group in order to achieve equality of results. Therefore, it is difficult for mainstream groups to avoid discrimination when interacting with minority groups. “Many studies have confirmed that there is indeed discrimination in the French job market, residence market, education market, etc. For example, in the job market, under the same circumstances, the interview chances of resumes with minority names are much lower than those of Opportunities for CVs with traditional French names,” Liu Lida said.

Joseph Downing argues that the structural problems underlying the 2005 riots have never been addressed and have even been exacerbated by the deterioration in police-public relations in recent years. In describing the tension, Paris-based historian Andrew Hussey refers to two conversations he had on the streets after the riots. A policeman told him, “When you enter some slum areas, you have to be tense and alert all the time, ready to be attacked at any time. It feels like a war zone.” A 40-year-old Arab man said Nahel Likening his death to “a war against those of us who live in places like this,” he said he had a master’s degree and had a family, but he had been discriminated against and humiliated for most of his life, “always discriminated against by the police.”

The deterioration of the social security situation caused by ethnic integration and the hardening of law enforcement have formed a vicious circle . France passed new public safety laws in 2017 after multiple terrorist attacks in 2015, including a new law that allows police officers to shoot motorists fleeing traffic checkpoints even if they are not in imminent danger. According to the New York Times, Sebastian Roché, a police expert at the French National Center for Scientific Research, counted fatal shootings in traffic stops after 2017. He believes that the upward trend of such incidents has become a big problem.

A person in charge of an institution responsible for researching the police force said that the expected effect of the new security law in 2017 is anti-terrorism, “but when you get unexpected effects, there will be abnormal effects.” Political Science, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin Professor Jacques de Maillard (Jacques de Maillard), who has long studied French security issues, pointed out that after the passage of the new law in 2017, the training of the police force has not kept up with this change, and the law enforcement brought about by this law The boundaries of change are blurred.

At present, the policeman who fired a fatal shot at Naher was initially arrested, and he will face the investigation of “unpremeditated intentional homicide” by the prosecutor. The defense attorney said the officer did what he thought he had to do at the time, but he “really didn’t want to kill someone” and his spirit was broken.

unspeakable tear

When protests in the name of justice turned into uncontrolled vandalism, residents in disadvantaged neighborhoods suffered another blow. The Guardian interviewed a resident of Borny, in eastern France, who for years volunteered to tutor children at a state-of-the-art community public library there. But in this riot, the library was burned to ruins and 110,000 volumes were destroyed, and she couldn’t help crying. This community, where half of the residents live below the poverty line, suffered intensive damage during the 2005 riots. The construction of the library is one of the government’s attempts to help local young people integrate into society. But now, the library and the bus station and municipal buildings built at the same time have been destroyed.

The collapse of these facilities built to bridge ethnic relations seems to be the epitome of the impasse in France’s ethnic integration. In fact, the unresolvable antagonism does not only exist between a certain minority group and mainstream society. Chinese artist Liu Guangli has been studying and living in France since 2013. He told this magazine that he and his friends were once harassed or verbally attacked by young Arabs. In Liu Guangli’s view, these things started from colonialism The question of the period, which affects the daily lives of everyone in French society, has been neglected for so long and only gets some discussion after such extreme events as Naher’s death. “Why are French young people so keen on vandalism and looting? For nearly two generations, these acts of vandalism with a venting or even performance nature reflect that the public dialogue space they want does not exist.”

In fact, many scholars have long tried to explain the special protest phenomenon of “the French love to burn cars”. Michel Wieviorka, director of research at the French Academy of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, pointed out in a TV interview in 2013 that burning cars is a way of expressing anger and dissatisfaction, as well as a way of asserting one’s own autonomy and authority. Ability to get out of the way of the day-to-day, “they’re trying to get the media’s attention, ‘I exist too, and I’m partying too, in my own way.'”

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, publicly expressed concern after the Nahr incident, saying “this is a moment for a country to get serious about addressing deep-seated issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement. But the French Foreign Ministry immediately retorted, “Any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination against the French police force is baseless.”

Analysts believe that for Macron, the leader who has always pursued the middle line, it is very difficult to maintain a balance between condemning violence and appeasing the people’s emotions at this time. The far-right leader, Le Pen, who narrowly defeated Macron in the 2022 general election, immediately accused the authorities of being too weak in suppressing immigration issues and crimes, and advocated a state of emergency. But Macron has yet to invoke curfews and ban demonstrations. He canceled his visit to Germany, which was originally scheduled to start on July 2, and held meetings with leaders of parliamentarians and local leaders where serious riots occurred for two consecutive days.

Liu Lida told this magazine that from a preliminary point of view, the crisis of governance brought by the riots in the past week to the authorities is probably not as good as the continuous protests triggered by the previous pension reform plan. Those who are part of the mainstream society are not accepted.” But Liu Lida also pointed out that in the long run, this incident has indeed deteriorated the construction of the entire country’s community. And the majority group will be less identified with the other party as their compatriots, so from the perspective of deep-seated, long-term crisis, it is more serious than the crisis caused by the impact of pension reform.”

On July 2, Paris’ police chief said it was too early to “declare victory” even though the scale of the street damage had been significantly reduced the night before. In fact, there are some signs that people have noticed that the trauma and shock brought by the death of the teenager to French society will hardly disappear with the dispersal of the troublemakers. According to Reuters, dozens of town “citizen rallies” sprang up across the country on July 3, where people fiercely debated who was responsible for the unrest. Meanwhile, donations to a far-right crowdfunding page for the jailed officer who shot the police officer have reached €1 million.

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