The Roots of France’s Riots

Years of systemic discrimination made the recent violent protests all but inevitable

The Roots of France’s Riots
French police detain a demonstrator in Paris on July 2, 2023. (Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Mehdi, 18, and Rifat, 19, were meeting me in front of a local park. Both looked nervous, given it was the first time they were being interviewed. I asked them how they felt when they heard of the passing of Nahel Merzouk, the 17 year-old boy who was fatally shot by a police officer on June 29 in Nanterre, right outside Paris.

“I was in shock. It could have been my little brother, some kid I know, it could have been me. Can you imagine they killed him because he didn’t have his driving license? I am young, I am stupid, I used to drive without a license,” Mehdi’s throat tightened as he said these last words. We are interrupted by a police van that stops in front of us. An officer pulls down the window, stares at the three of us, and drives away without a word.

“Now I don’t feel safe, I am genuinely scared,” Mehdi says.

Nahel, a boy of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was killed during a traffic stop. The police officer who stopped him first claimed that the young man tried to drive over him, but a video revealed that Nahel was shot at point-blank range. In an interview, friends of Nahel who were in the car at the time claim that the police officer repeatedly threatened to shoot Nahel and hit him several times in the head. French prosecutors have charged the officer in question with voluntary homicide.

In the nights following Nahel’s death, France witnessed some of the most intense displays of anger in its recent history. With unrest and destruction, young men took to the street to express their fury. Since then, a 27-year-old man died in Marseille from a heart attack allegedly caused by a flash-ball shot.

I spoke to dozens of young men to make sense of the past 10 days. They will be referred to only by their first names, as revealing their full identities could lead to their losing their jobs or being subjected to harassment. They come from the outskirts of Paris, the much-discussed banlieues, and the notorious northern neighborhoods of Marseille, as well as from smaller towns like Mulhouse, a former industrial powerhouse that has attracted immigrants of all backgrounds. They were all born in France and are French citizens, but express a sense of alienation: They know their ethnic background has informed their experience with the police. Some are as young as 12. All felt the same mixture of shock, sadness, anger and fear when they learned of Nahel’s death.

Once the initial shock settled, none of them was surprised. “I simply thought, one more murder at the hands of the police that will go unseen. Then the video came out and we all saw and we all had proof,” says Qais, 18, from Marseille. Moments after seeing the video, he told his friend on their Snapchat group, “I’m going down; who’s coming along?” At first, they wandered around without any goal, he told New Lines. Then they started to break and burn down anything they could find.

“We know it is the only way to get heard, the only way the media will talk about us, our anger. And don’t be mistaken, we weren’t just Arabs and Black kids; there were many others with us,” he said. In Mulhouse, in eastern France, young men shared the same conclusions. “It’s our revolt,” Mehdi said. “And if nothing changes, we will carry on. We have no other way. We are fed up.”

For these young men, Nahel’s death was the final straw. They all tell the same stories of racial profiling and daily altercations with police. Djiguiba, a 16-year-old boy of Guinean and Ethiopian descent from Paris, is already accustomed to frequent police checks. “I am often the only Black kid in my group of friends, so the police will check me first and more often. Sometimes they even ask my friends questions like ‘How do you know him?’ or ‘Are you sure you know him?’”

Qais said he lives through the same daily experiences in Marseille.

“We get stopped every time we go to the city center, as if it wasn’t our city,” he said. “We just walk around and get stopped. I can tell you they never stop those they call ‘the French.’”

Throughout our discussion, Qais would often use this expression to signal that he is not perceived as really French and is not treated the way someone perceived as French would be treated.

“Some are polite but some won’t hesitate to call you ‘bamboula’ or ‘tajine.’” The Defenseur des Droits, the government authority responsible for the safeguarding of human rights in France, has pointed out the prevalence and illegality of racial profiling, yet few if any measures have been taken to address the issue.

According to the young men I spoke to, routine police checks can be accompanied by humiliations. Rifat said, “They often slap us, if they see you are wearing a branded cap they will throw it on the ground and step on it, insult you. They provoke you, but you have to be smart and stay calm. If you react, they will arrest you for contempt and, once they do, it is their word against yours. Who will believe you?” The overuse of the offense of “contempt” by French police, sometimes for personal financial gain, has been documented before by the Interior Ministry.

Such abuses have already been highlighted on the international stage. Amnesty International denounced the impunity of police violence in France as far back as 2009. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has repeatedly questioned France on police brutality, most recently following Nahel’s murder. In response, France declared that “any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination by French law enforcement units is totally unfounded.” This declaration comes at a time where a GoFundMe campaign to support the policeman who shot Nahel has collected over $1.64 million and a statement by two police syndicates declared that the police were “at war” against what they called “pests” and “hordes of savages.”

This climate is nothing new for many inhabitants living in the same working-class neighborhoods as the young men to whom I spoke. If anything, it feels like a replay of history. “It is like the myth of Sisyphus,” said Omar Dawson, the 44-year-old founder of GrignyWood, an NGO helping disenfranchised youth in Grigny, outside Paris. “France likes to think of itself as the country of revolution, but all we do is run in circles, back to the same point, and that is the true definition of revolution.”

Dawson was in his early 20s in 2005 when riots broke out after the death of Zyed and Bouna, two boys from the northern suburbs of Paris who were electrocuted at a power station while being chased by police. For him, we are witnessing the results of years of the same inadequate political response.

“After the 2005 riots, the state poured millions and billions into the banlieues, but where is that money?” According to Dawson, a lot of the funds were used to set up associations meant to carry out anti-violence prevention projects. Yet his NGO, GrignyWood, points out that there was no real implementation. “This money never got to us.”

When asked about potential solutions, he voiced desperation. “Nothing is going to change. If anything, I tell the kids to go abroad, where they will be given a chance. I’ve lost hope in seeing social change. Social workers on the ground have exhausted themselves alerting local politicians who never listen and then wonder what happened when things start burning.”

So far, no new plan has been announced to defuse the anger; no millions of dollars in investments in the neighborhoods on the margins. Instead, the government immediately called for a “swift, firm and systematic” judicial response to what it perceives as a security issue.

Rafik Chekkat, a Marseille-based lawyer, attended the hearings following the first arrests. He describes the defendants brought to court as people arrested around riot-stricken areas once the violence subsided, rather than rioters themselves. Most of them belong to the most disadvantaged sections of society and are unknown to police services: some are homeless, while others have no papers and work only in the informal economy.

“Some were arrested for having taken a pair of glasses from a smashed window, a cheese or a single shoe. There was little evidence presented, no testimonies, and yet they were treated with exceptional severity,” said Chekkat. “The rest of the year, you would not be condemned to eight months in jail for two pairs of trousers. We have never seen this before.”

In spite of the exceptional punishments handed out, there was no acknowledgement of the exceptional circumstances in which the offenses occurred. “Even after hours of proceedings, Nahel’s name was never mentioned once, as if this all happened on its own,” he said.

“Some judges even used the word ‘razzia’ (an archaic word referring to Muslim military raids) to label the chaos, though it is unclear whether they understood the racial undertone of such a term,” he said.

In a very French twist of events, the courts interpreted the situation as one born not out of anger at systemic injustice but the indiscipline of an ethnic minority that it will never name directly. After all, in France, we do not talk about race.

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