The point-blank shooting of Nahel M, 17, in a Paris suburb by the police is only the latest in a spate of such deadly incidents in France. It is the third killing during a traffic stop this year. It follows a record 13 killings last year. Two weeks ago, in Angoulême (South-West France), a black man aged 19 was killed by the police in similar circumstances. The news did not make the headlines because no one was there to film the scene.
In Nanterre (Paris region), a bystander filmed Nahel’s killing. The footage contradicts the police’s report which stressed that Nahel’s behaviour represented a “direct threat” to the two police officers on the ground. This account is fallacious. Nahel was fatally shot because he refused to comply with an order to stop.
No “George Floyd moment”
In French law, a refusal to stop does not give the police the right to kill. This is why the officer who shot Nahel has been officially put under investigation – the equivalent of being charged – for voluntary homicide. This does not mean that he will eventually be found guilty of the charge. The French judicial system rarely condemns police officers.
President Macron promptly declared that the killing was “inexcusable”. It is most unusual for a Head of State to condemn an officer. In most cases, no one dares to criticise the police, let alone challenge its version of events. These were words of appeasement. Macron feared that the shocking killing could spark scenes of violent protests across France. And, indeed, it did just that.
This is no “George Floyd moment” for France. Racist police brutality has been going on for decades in France. The current riots are a reminder of the events of 2005. Then, two French teenagers of Arabic origin, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted after running into an electricity substation in the Paris suburb as they fled police who were chasing them. Think also of the emblematic Adama Traoré high-profile case: he was a 24-year-old black man who died in police custody in circumstances that remain unclear. An independent autopsy and medical report pointed to asphyxiation. Seven years on, the policemen involved still have not been charged. The list of less publicised cases would be too long to account for in this article.
Why has police violence only been a newsworthy issue recently? Until a few years ago, only racialised people who live in suburbs were victims of police violence. The media would therefore not cover it, and mainstream politicians on the right but also on the left, would be in denial, arguing that the police are a “republican force acting for the common good”. The police, as an institution, could therefore do no wrong.
Over the past ten years or so, empowered police forces have increasingly used heavy-handed tactics to manage political demonstrations in city centres. This was notable during the Yellow Vests movement from 2018 onwards, and again during the protests against the pension reform in 2022-23. Hundreds of demonstrators were victims of police brutality and arbitrary arrests. Some were blinded by the police’s “flash-balls” or lost a hand after officers had used crowd-control grenades. The victims were mostly white middle-class. People are now realising that anyone could be on the receiving end of police brutality. Large sections of the left have become more critical of the police, and the expression “police brutality” is now used in the media.
Nahel was fatally shot because he was a young Frenchman of Algerian origin. His mother interviewed on French TV declared that the police officer who shot his son “saw an Arab face, a little kid, and he wanted to take his life.” In the working-class suburbs where many racialised youngsters are bullied, harassed and beaten up by officers daily, this statement certainly struck a chord. This appalling situation may be familiar to an American public, but it comes across as exceptional and shocking in most European democracies.
Racism is indeed endemic in the French police forces. Police brutality happens every day especially if you are an Arab or a Black. Police officers engage in widespread practice of ethnic profiling that constitutes systemic discrimination. In a rare but significant ruling, the Paris Court of Appeal in 2021 found discrimination was behind police ID checks of three high school students who were of Moroccan, Malian, and Comorian origin at a train station in 2017.
Despite ample evidence of such practice and multiple reports from Human Rights NGOs which stress that those abusive ID checks aim to “humiliate” racialised youngsters, no government has taken any action to sort the issue. Following the killing of Nahel, the UN Human Rights Office has yet again singled out France and urged its authorities “to seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement.”
As ever, the French government was in denial, arguing that “any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force is totally unfounded.” This is highly ironic: France’s elites believe that the “colour-blind” policy at the heart of the French republican ideology is an antidote against institutional racism. This is one of the legacies of the French revolution which broke with the class-ridden Ancien Régime by positing that all Men are born equal. The State, therefore, will not consider people’s backgrounds (be it ethnic or religious) to assess whether some populations are discriminated against. As a result of this, no one in mainstream politics is willing to challenge this very abstract conception of equality. Many know that it is a fantasy, but everyone keeps quiet because the “Republic” and its “values” are sacrosanct in France.
Police brutality and fatal casualties have got worse since a 2017 bill. Police officers are now allowed by law to shoot if they argue that a driver or the occupants of a vehicle were “deemed to pose a risk to the officer’s life or physical safety”. Police unions put pressure on the then socialist government and got what they wanted. A centre left government changed the law on the use of firearms by officers and rewrote the penal code to accommodate the police’s wishes.
The French NGO Human Rights League argues that the law has allowed officers to be uninhibited about their firearms as it gives them legal protection for shooting and killing. It is a fact that since the law was changed the number of people who were fatally shot by the police (most of them are racialised people) has kept increasing: 27 were killed in 2017, 40 in 2020 and 52 in 2021.
French police and the far right
Nahel’s killing should raise the crucial question about the state of the French police and the inability of successive governments to reform it as well as tame its increasingly far right-bound unions. After World War II, most police unions were close to the French Communist party. In the 1980s, they supported the socialist governments. They now share the far-right agenda on law and order. A majority of police officers voted for Marine Le Pen in 2022.
In a 1995 reform, the government gave broad co-management powers to police unions. Since then, unions have been making deals with the successive right-wing and left-wing interior ministers. The unions have become powerful and politicised organisations which ensure the loyalty of their staff. They can undermine every interior minister who attempts to reform the police force. In 2020, Jean-Christophe Castaner, the then interior minister, planned to ban the controversial use of chokeholds during arrests, reform IGPN police watchdog (composed of police officers who assess their peers) and introduce zero-tolerance policies for racism in the police. The unions vehemently protested and Castaner was promptly replaced by Gérald Darmanin, a right-wing hardliner who infamously told Marine Le Pen during a televised debate that she was “too soft on Islam”.
In short, the government seems wary of far right-leaning police unions that want to manage law and order in France as it sees fit. To talk of “Macron’s police” is therefore underplaying the tremendous autonomy the police has acquired over the past 20 years.
As the British historian Edward P. Thompson once put it: “riots are a social disaster” for the dominated. In the current circumstances, the tide is already turning again them. Scenes of destruction of public buildings (police stations, but also schools, libraries, town halls and buses) as well as the looting of shops or the random burning of cars in the street, will not earn their perpetrators any sympathy from the public. Residents in the suburbs say that they understand the youngsters’ anger but that they disapprove of their action. For the working-class people living in those deprived areas will be the victims of those destructions. On the social media, racialised people voice their concern: what does the burning of a school have to do with paying tribute to Nahel or celebrating his memory? They fear that these actions will prove their racist detractors right and give Macron a pretext for another repressive turn of the screw with the passing of further bills curtailing public freedoms.
Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour will fully benefit from the situation by arguing (they have already started to do so) that those “riff raff do not respect France”, and “do not want to integrate”. They will claim that “France’s multiculturalism has failed”, when in fact the situation is so racially tense because the political class and the police reject the very notion of France being a multicultural country, which is a fact. The left, under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s populist movement Unbowed France, is too weak and has no influence on the working-class populations from those deprived areas. This is all dispiriting as the rioters appear less politically conscious than their predecessors in 2005. The young come across as angry, upset, fearful and with no political reference points. In the meantime, who will protect those ethnic minority kids from the police?
Philippe Marlière is a Professor of French and European Politics at University College London (UK). Twitter: @PhMarliere