Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 23 July 2023

France’s street violence

Source: By Arjun Sengupta: The Indian Express

After the police killed a teenager in a Parisian suburb, protests — often violent — spread across France. Protesters demanded justice for Nahel, the 17-year old of Algerian descent who was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop. Almost 50,000 police personnel were deployed in the streets over the weekend, and police have so far arrested close to 3,000 alleged rioters.

President Emmanuel Macron has described Nahel’s killing as “inexcusable”, but also slammed the violent actions of the protesters. The President’s critics have accused him of not going to the root of the problem and instead looking at Nahel’s death as an isolated incident.

Crystal Fleming, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University, told NPR in an interview that the protests and their ferocity were not, as Macron said, “inexplicable”. “The reality is that it’s not inexplicable,” Fleming, the author of Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, said. “It’s not rocket science, it’s racism.”

Discrimination despite diversity

The protesters allege Nahel’s death is symptomatic of the systemic racism in French policing. “[The police officer] saw an Arab face, a little kid, and wanted to take his life,” Nahel’s grieving mother told France 5 TV.

According to The Defender of Rights, an advocacy group in France, young men who are Black or perceived to be of North African descent, are 20 times more likely to be subjected to police identity checks than the rest of the population.

Since a 2017 law allowed police to use firearms in case of non-compliance during traffic stops, fatal shootings by officers have shot up, with 2022 witnessing a record 13 such shootings. The majority of victims of these shootings since 2017 have been black or of Arab origin, Reuters reported.

This is despite France being one of the most racially and ethnically diverse countries in Europe. While exact information on France’s ethnic composition is unavailable due to a 1978 law which prevents the state from collecting such data in its censuses, a 2022 study by Ined, France’s state-run institute for demographic studies, said at least 32 per cent of France’s population under 60 has at least one immigrant ancestor.

The study also said that 83 per cent of people under 18 who have at least one immigrant parent trace their origins to countries outside Europe, especially Africa.

Algeria, the North African nation to which Nahel’s family traces its roots, was once a prized French colony.

The French African colonies

The formal French presence in Africa began with the capture of Madagascar in 1642 and establishment of a port at Saint-Louis (present-day Senegal) in 1659. This was primarily fuelled by France’s desire to secure access to commodities such as gum arabic and groundnuts, and for a share in the spoils of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Over the next century and a half, French African holdings remained largely restricted to the west coast and some islands. France’s global empire, which at one time stretched from parts of present-day United States and Canada and the Caribbean (Haiti) to parts of India’s east coast, suffered a setback with defeats at the hands of the British in the early 19th century.

A second phase of French colonisation began with the invasion of Algiers in 1830 — and was largely focussed on Africa (French Indo-china or present-day Vietnam being the most notable exception). Over the following century, France expanded its footprint across the continent and, by the early years of the twentieth century, held present day Algeria, Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Niger.

After the end of World War II, nationalist movements swept through the colonies. After a phase of political instability, violence, and bloodshed in the 1950s, almost all of France’s African colonies achieved independence by 1962.

The continuing Francafrique and migration

Critics say France’s exploitative relationship with its former colonies still continues. It has repeatedly intervened in the political affairs of its former colonies, and has a considerable military presence in Africa. Several economically extractive processes, which defined colonial rule, continue.

“… [I]mperialism … claims that it is ‘giving’ independence to its former subjects, to be followed by ‘aid’ for their development. Under cover of such phrases, however, it devises innumerable ways to accomplish objectives formerly achieved by naked colonialism,” the former President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah wrote in his book Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965).

“It is this sum total of these modern attempts to perpetuate colonialism while at the same time talking about ‘freedom’, which has come to be known as neo-colonialism,” Nkrumah wrote.

An outcome of this situation — Africa’s continued impoverishment and the allure of European riches and quality of life — has been extensive migration from Africa to Europe. For francophone countries, France has been the preferred destination.

An article published earlier this year in Le Monde described the exodus of doctors from Senegal to France after a law was passed easing doctors’ migration. “Several colleagues regularly travel back and forth between Senegal and France to fill in at French hospitals or even to settle there. In one month, they can earn what they would earn in six months here!” Dr Abdoulaye Diop told Le Monde.

The working classes too have sought to go to France, where minimum wages and workers’ rights assures them of a better life. After the War, as France suffered from massive labour shortages, it actively courted cheap labour from its colonies. Over the decades, this led to a thriving African population in France, many of whom are today naturalised citizens.

The failure of assimilation

Anne Friederike Delouis, a scholar of French society at the University of Orleans, argues that while extremely diverse in terms of ethnic composition, “France does not see itself as a pluralist or multicultural society.”

Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at Princeton University, has argued that France’s uniqueness lies in the “physical presence and conceptual absence of cultural difference”. The French state has focussed in “assimilating” its diverse population into the “French ideal” by strictly adhering to political egalitarianism.

“The French idea of assimilation was meant to turn Africans into one-dimensional Frenchmen, stripped of their alternative histories and the ideas and concepts about identity held by their ancestors,” Patrick Gathara, an award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi, wrote for Al Jazeera.

Yet, this attempt at assimilation has remained incomplete, leading to deep tensions in French society. Culturally, the French ideal remains inaccessible to people of colour. Socially and economically, African immigrants are among the poorest in the country, with the lowest levels of education and the highest levels of unemployment.

African diaspora neighbourhoods see among the highest rates of crime in France and, in turn, bear the brunt of police violence, accentuated by ingrained racial attitudes. The outrage at Nahel’s death must be seen within this context.

“Nahel’s death is another chapter in a long and traumatic story. Whatever our age, many of us French who are descended from postcolonial immigration carry within us this fear combined with rage, the result of decades of accumulated injustice”, French journalist Rokhaya Diallo wrote for The Guardian.

“The crimes of the police are at the root of many of the uprisings in France’s most impoverished urban areas, and it is these crimes that must be condemned first,” she wrote.

Book A Free Counseling Session