GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 707, 6 July 2023

France: Protests and anti-violence rallies underline issues bigger than a police shooting
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 3 July, France24 reported that mayors across France staged anti-violence rallies against the ongoing riots after the rioters attacked the house of the mayor of Haÿ-les-Roses, Vincent Jeanbrun. The same day, following a visit to police barracks in the capital's 17th Arrondissement, French President Emmanuel Macron assured his support to the anti-violence protesters. Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne stated that the priority is to bring back the order. The demonstrators said: "Everywhere in France are the scene of serious unrest, which targets republican symbols with extreme violence."

The anti-violence protests erupted as a response to violent riots followed by protests, continuing since 27 June after the shooting of a teen, Nahel Merzouk, in Nanterre. The charges of "intentional homicide" were imposed on the police officer after a video of the police shooting the teen was publicized. In response to the riots, France's Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin ordered the deployment of 40,000 police officers and imposed a curfew as the clashes grew uncontrollable. 

The protests began as a "White March" in the northern suburb of Nanterre, where Nahel belongs. Clashes erupted when the protesters used projectiles on police and spread to other cities in France. Most are in the north, central, and southwest of Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Pau, Toulouse, and Lille. The protesters included a majority of the young population between 14 and 18 years old, people from the working class, African descent, and Muslims protesting for "justice for Nahel."

Issues at large
First, the nature of the protests. The protests, concentrated in Paris, later spread sporadically to other parts of France. However, the reasons are beyond the death of Nahel. It includes persisting issues of racial discrimination, growing police misconduct, and increasing government's harsh measures, including the pension reforms, increase in taxes and cost of living. 

Second, a divided France. Episodes of protests, violence and anti-violence rallies across France represent a divided society. The police are against the government's decision to detain the police officer who shot Nahel. The divide is between the "law-and-order" force, which implements measures despite public opposition, and the public, disappointed with the government's response to their demands.

Third, the larger debate over police brutality and systemic racism. The shooting brought back the long-standing accusations against the systemic racist approach by the security forces. The debate over police brutality has existed since 2005, when two teens were killed in a police run, resulting in riots across France against racial discrimination. An investigation in 2017 by France's civil liberties ombudsman revealed that young African descendants are subjected to more than 20 times of identity checks compared to the entire population. In 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International launched a "class action" against the government for not addressing the issue of ethnic profiling by the police. 

Fourth, the harsh government response. Nearly 45,000 police have been deployed to counter the violence. According to France24, the units were "heavily equipped and have armoured vehicles." The government's harsh response to the protests is nothing old. According to a previous report by Foreign Policy, in 2018 and 2019, the government dealt with the "Yellow Jackets" protests by equipping the security forces with weapons that would cause serious injuries. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin issued a statement supporting the police in controlling the unrest. The mayors have taken the initiative to pressure the government further to address the violence.

In perspective
The violence has continued for seven days and has been dealt with by the government through security forces. On the other hand, the anti-violence rally by the regional heads has led to an immediate meeting with the mayors to discuss settling the issue and showcase the government's support to the local leaders. The continued tensions amid the yellow jacket protests, COVID-19 protests and pension reform protests since Macron's first term have given way to deep-seated conflict within the society, reducing respect for institutions.

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