(MENAFN- AzerNews) On the esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, in Nanterre, hatred for the
police is all over the walls. On June 27, a 17-year-old resident of
this western suburb of Paris was shot dead by a police officer
after being pulled over for a traffic stop, Azernews reports,
citing a foreign media outlet .
Nahel Merzouk, who was of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was the
15th person killed in this way in France since the beginning of
2022, with most of the victims being Black, or of North African
As is always the case in such situations, the officers involved
tried to justify themselves by invoking self-defence. This time,
however, the police story was almost instantly blown to pieces on
social media by video footage captured by a passerby, which showed
that Nahel had not put the officers' lives at risk at any
As the video of the killing went viral, it sparked moral outrage
and within hours, clashes erupted in the most deprived areas of
Nanterre, as well as in neighbouring Hauts-de-Seine and
Over the next seven days and nights, the uproar spread to 553
municipalities across the country. Nearly two decades after the
2005 riots, France witnessed another mass revolt in its banlieues
suburbs, which threatened to engulf many city centres.
Postcolonial policing and its discontents
Chronic tensions between the police and the residents of
underprivileged banlieues go a long way to explain the moral
outrage sparked by Nahel's death. French historians and
sociologists have widely documented the post-colonial legacy
informing police engagement with these subaltern populations,
especially those of North African and sub-Saharan African
During the colonial era, hundreds of thousands of North Africans
and sub-Saharan Africans came for work to metropolitan France,
where they were legally recognised as nationals but nonetheless
treated as undesirable populations. This is how a heavy-handed
style of policing - relying on identity checks and body searches,
often on the basis of ethnic profiling - as well as various forms
of police illegalities - disproportionate use of force, extra-legal
beatings or even killings of immigrants known as ratonnades -
became part of police routines.
This aggressive style of policing has endured after the
populations from former French colonies were displaced from slums
to so-called grands ensembles (large housing developments).
During the 1960s and 1970s, Nanterre was one of the emblematic
sites of this peripheral urbanism. Here, the residents of a dozen
shantytowns - most of them of Algerian origin - were relocated to
housing blocks like the cité Pablo-Picasso, where Nahel Merzouk
lived and which became a major battlefield after his death.
With its winding alleys twining around 18 towers famous for
their curved façades painted in a dull sky blue, their windows in
the shape of drops of water, this housing project designed by
architect Emile Aillaud was emblematic of the new urbanism of the
1970s - not only for its aesthetic ambitions but also for its
social concerns - the towers aimed to provide affordable but
comfortable housing to populations who were long deprived of
Like many other, similar grands ensembles, the neighbourhood
gradually fell into a state of decay over the following decades, as
a result of several mutually reinforcing phenomena - the
disengagement of the state from urban peripheries, the
impoverishment of local institutions, the deindustrialisation of
the country and the rise of mass unemployment, which resulted in a
population of idle young men who became a prime target for police
Among the residents of such working class neighbourhoods,
hostility towards the police is not restricted to these young men.
I witnessed this hostility firsthand at the end of the memorial
march for Nahel on June 29.
The well-attended march, led by Nahel's mother, started
peacefully. However, it was dispersed by tear-gas, which prompted
clashes and incidents of rioting. The esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle,
at the border between Nanterre and the business district of La
Défense, was one of the main battlegrounds.
For several hours, bands of young, face-covered men, threw
projectiles at the police and resorted to looting and arson. At
some point, a bank office was set on fire and, within minutes, the
blaze threatened to engulf the entire building, including the
apartments on the upper floor.
This prompted rioters, bystanders and reporters alike to shout
or even throw stones at the residents of the building to warn them
of the impending danger and convince them to evacuate. Two young
men even scaled the building to carry the message directly.
When the police finally arrived on the scene, people shouted
frantically at them, requesting them to do something for the
residents of the building. Instead, police officers responded
aggressively and, within seconds, started shooting rubber bullets
This infuriated a group of young women, one of whom knew Nahel
personally. In a fit of rage, Ines (not her real name) grabbed a
can of coke and threw it at a police officer.
She missed, but the targeted officer jumped at her and tried to
strip away her veil, leading to a mêlée between the young woman's
friends and the police.
Ines was arrested and was accused by the police officer she had
a brawl with to have punched him in the face and neck. The police
report, which the French online outlet Mediapart had access to,
also claimed that the police had confronted a horde of at least a
hundred black-clad looters and rioters.
Like other witnesses to the scene, I can attest that none of
this was true. Once again, a video, shot by a reporter associated
with the independent media outlet, Civicio, contradicted the police
This proved to be a key element for Ines' defence, who was only
sentenced to a few days of community service after the tribunal of
Nanterre implicitly acknowledged that the police had lied and
produced a fake testimony.
The proliferation of smartphones and commitment of street
reporters - independent journalists or ordinary citizens
documenting public demonstrations - to watch the watchmen have
undoubtedly complicated the action of the French police over the
past few years, while exposing some of its blatant
Most incidents of police brutality and acts of humiliation
towards the denizens of the banlieues remain below the radar,
though. The most banal form of police harassment in underprivileged
neighbourhoods comes in the form of identity checks - a deeply
entrenched legacy of France's postcolonial style of policing.
Various studies have confirmed the discriminatory nature of such
identity checks - according to one of the most authoritative
studies on the subject, young men identified as Black or Arab are
20 times more likely to be subjected to such controls.
At the higher end of the spectrum of police violence are police
homicides justified as acts of self-defence. These killings have
significantly increased since 2017 following the passage of a law
allowing officers to open fire preventively, if they anticipate
that the suspects or occupants of a vehicle are prone to cause them
Following a series of attacks on the police, this reform was a
response to the pressure of police unions, which has only increased
over the past few years - a pressure which is all the more
preoccupying since these unions have largely adopted the
inflammatory rhetoric of the far-right by requesting an iron hand
against the vermin of the banlieues to save the country from an
impending civil war.
Bowing down to such police pressure, successive governments have
provided law enforcement agencies with a virtual 'license to kill',
say human rights activists. This is reflected in the fact that
France currently has the highest number of police homicides by
firearm in Europe - a number that has more than doubled between
2020 (12) and 2022 (26).
No justice, no peace
French authorities - and the population at large - initially
seemed mesmerised by the audacity of the rioters, who circulated
their 'dingueries' (crazy feats) over social media, especially
Snapchat, and emulated each other.
Not only did peripheral localities fall under the control of
rioters for several hours, the trouble also spilled to city
centres. In Paris, Marseille, Toulouse, Lyon and Strasbourg, gangs
of looters and rioters, sometimes in broad daylight, targeted
public buildings and commercial ventures.
It did not take long for the state to strike
On June 29, two days after Nahel's death, the government
announced that paramilitary, elite forces would be deployed across
the country to quell the riots. These units, specialising in the
fight against terrorism and organised crime, were equipped with
heavier weapons than the ones used by the riot police - such as
shotguns loaded with bean bags - and were accompanied by armoured
vehicles. Their personnel, who are rarely deployed for law and
order assignments, proved particularly brutal.
In Mont-Saint-Martin (in the département of Meurthe-et-Moselle,
in the east of France), a 25-year-old fell into a coma after being
hit by a bean bag round shot by the RAID - an elite unit of the
Although they were probably concerned that more deaths at the
hands of the police could escalate an already tense situation,
President Macron and his government decided to increase police
presence in the streets.
On the night between June 30 and July 1, 45,000 men and women in
blue were deployed across the country. This massive police presence
was maintained the following night, which saw the first confirmed
death at the hands of the police during the riots - in Marseille, a
27-year-old Uber deliverer of North-African origin was killed by a
rubber bullet while filming a police arrest.
Regular law enforcement agencies were not the only ones vowing
to bring back order to disturbed areas.
In Angers, Chambery and Lyon, far-right activists also took to
the streets, allegedly to target rioters but essentially to harass
any member of a visible minority. In Lorient, 30 men and women
formed a 'brigade anti-casseurs' (anti-riots brigade) and arrested
presumed offenders, handcuffed them and delivered them to the
police after roughing them up.
Investigations by the local press later suggested that these
were probably commandos from a nearby navy base. While these
incidents remained relatively low-key, they showed the willingness
of various sections of the French population to undertake law
enforcement assignments, vigilante style.
This is not a new phenomenon: over the past few years,
oppositional groups - environmental activists, in particular - have
been the target of various brands of henchmen, linked to dominant
agricultural unions, landowners, hunters or private guards employed
by large corporations. Not only is law and order becoming an
increasingly brutal affair in France, it is also becoming more
plural, with both private specialists of violence and
self-professed 'law-abiding citizens' claiming to play a part in
An intense judicial repression thus followed the riots.
According to official figures released by the Ministry of Justice,
3,600 people were arrested during seven days and nights of rioting,
including 1,149 minors. More than 60 per cent of those arrested had
no criminal record and 1,122 will be prosecuted. By July 5, 585 had
already been facing summary proceedings and 380 were sentenced to
It is hard to believe that these strong-arm tactics will produce
the appeasement that France needs so badly. On the contrary, they
are bound to fuel the sense of injustice of underprivileged,
racialised youths. They will also condemn this government and its
successors to escalating levels of violence, as more moderate
interlocutors are systematically being silenced. Sadly, France
seems headed only for more trouble.
Laurent Gayer is a political scientist based at CERI-Sciences
Po, Paris. He is the author of several books, including Karachi:
Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City (Hurst, 2014) and
Gunpoint Capitalism: Enforcing Corporate Order in Karachi (Hurst,