The politics of the French riots

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John Litchfield is the former foreign editor of The Independent and was the paper̵7;s Paris correspondent for 20 years.

Beware those who offer simplistic explanations for the riots in multi-racial suburbs across France.

For the most part, these are not political riots – although they are fueled by the toxic divisive politics of France and will dangerously escalate.

These are not religious riots. Many young rioters may have a sense of an ingrained Muslim identity, but they are motivated by anger rather than their religion. This is rebellion, not intifada.

To be precise, these are not really caste riots. Most of the millions of hardworking residents of the racially mixed suburbs that surround French cities are not included in this.

Rather, they are the main victims of the destruction of cars, buses, trams, schools, libraries, shops and social centres, which began after a 17-year-old boy was shot dead by a traffic policeman in Nanterre, just west of Paris. last Tuesday, Parents and other adults are now (belatedly) trying to stop this explosion of violence by young men and boys as young as 12.

The riots are in a sense anti-French; But they are also partly French by example. Complaints hit the street more quickly in France than in other countries. The worst excesses of the largely white, provincial Yellow Vest movement in 2018-19 came close to the blind violence we’ve seen in the past week.

These riots are definitely anti-police and anti-authority.

youth of African and North African descent much more likely than young white males to be stopped by French police. Seventeen people, mostly of African or North African descent, have been shot dead in the past 18 months after they refused to obey police orders to stop their cars.

the last big explosion in the suburbs, or suburbsran for three weeks in October–November 2005. The new eruption shows few signs of abating after only six days but has already crossed new limits.

The 2005 riots were confined to the suburbs. There were attacks on buildings and public transport but no direct confrontations with the police. There was almost no looting and looting.

On this occasion, the police have been attacked with fireworks, Molotov cocktails and shotguns. Raids have been conducted on shops and shopping centers. The riots have breached the invisible barrier between the inner suburbs and prosperous French cities – although the threat of an attack on the Champs Elysees in Paris on Saturday night fell short.

Demonstrators flee from exploding fireworks on a street in Nice, southeastern France, early July 2, 2023. Valerie Hatche/AFP via Getty Images

Opportunistic looting seems to be mostly the work of the youth. The more targeted violence – including an attack with a flaming car at the home of a mayor in a southern Paris suburb on Saturday night – is more organized and more vaguely political.

there are reassuring report The involvement of the far-left, mostly white, Black Bloc movement, which in recent years has attempted to establish links with suburban youth.

But it is a rebellion largely without purpose: cries of fury, anarchic rejection of even local forms of government; an act of gang-war on a large scale; A competition of demonstrative destruction between disaffected youths in suburbs and towns across France.

The other big and dangerous difference with 2005 is the national political background. Eighteen years ago, France was a country dominated by centre-right and centre-left traditional parties. No prominent politician encouraged the riots. Some tried to profit by suggesting that France faced a racial or religious civil war.

French politics is now split three ways between a hardline left, President Emmanuel Macron’s disorganized, reformist center and a hardline and far-right that thinks in distinctly racial terms.

Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon and some of his closest allies have angered other left-wing politicians by refusing to condemn the riots, even the looting. “I do not call for peace, I call for for justiceMelanchon said (despite the fact that the policeman who inexplicably shot 17-year-old Nahel last Tuesday has already been charged with murder).

Meanwhile, a powerful but divided far-right is pressing Macron to crack down violently on the rioters (despite the fact that one more death, no matter how accidental, could send the riots into an uncontrollable new dimension). .

Almost all the teens on the streets are French – not immigrants. And yet Marine Le Pen’s rival Eric Zemmour – echoed by usually more careful centre-right editorials le figaro – has spoken of “war” withoverseas territory between us.”

This inflammatory language is not new. Le Pen, Zemmour and others habitually refuse to acknowledge that multi-racial suburbs are home to millions of hardworking people – mostly of French descent – ​​without whom prosperous cities cannot survive.

They also refuse to recognize the substantial evidence of brutality and racial discrimination by the French police in their admittedly thankless job. suburbs,

The boy who was shot dead in Nanterre during the 2005 riots was not even born. Over the past 18 years a new generation of young people has grown up with the suspicion or belief that most of the rest of France will never accept them as French.

Many of those French people will look back on the events of the past week and their prejudices and fears will be confirmed or deepened.

With time the riots will calm down. Above €4 billion has already been spent to make life better in suburbs in the last two decades. There will undoubtedly be more to try to reverse last week’s self-harm orgy.

It is hard to see what can reverse the cycle of doubt, misunderstanding, rejection and fear.