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France Erupts Again – The level of violent volatility in France witnessed in recent years have surprised many who viewed France to be the flag-bearer of culture, arts and aesthetics. The string of protests have been experienced during the presidency of Emmanuel Macron who has somehow managed to cling on to his job for the second term despite being widely recognised to be aloof and lacking in compassion. This time round the violent protests have erupted in the country after a 17-year-old youth of North African descent was shot by police near Paris sparking a ban on demonstrations in some cities, travel warnings and reigniting a debate on over-policing in marginalised communities. Since then there has been consistent protests during which demonstrators have been setting fires to vehicles and climbing onto buildings with smashed windows, while riot police officers fiercely clashed with them. Lately the rioters raided the house of the mayor of the suburban city of L’Hay-Les-Roses and set it alight causing his wife and children to flee in panic.
The killing of Nahel M, who was of Algerian origin, has revived longstanding accusations of institutional racism within the French police that civil rights groups say single out minorities during controls. Seeking to quell what has become one of the biggest challenges to Macron since he took office in 2017, the French government has for the last two nights deployed 45,000 police and gendarmes nationwide as well as helicopters and armoured vehicles. It was also mentioned that 719 people were arrested overnight, around half the figure from the previous night but with intense clashes still reported in several places, including the southern city of Marseille. The protests present a fresh crisis for Macron who had been hoping to press on with the pledges of his second term after seeing off months of protests that erupted in January over raising the retirement age. He postponed a state visit to Germany in a sign of the gravity of the situation in France.
In a bid to limit the violence, buses and trams in France have stopped running after 9pm and the sale of large fireworks and inflammable liquids has been banned. Marseille has stopped all urban transport from 6pm. Macron has urged parents to take responsibility for underage rioters, one-third of whom were young or very young. The unrest has raised concerns abroad with France hosting the Rugby World Cup in the autumn and the Paris Olympic Games in the summer of 2024. Culture and entertainment have been disrupted, with singer Mylene Farmer calling off stadium concerts and French fashion house Celine canceling its Paris menswear show.
It is reported that a 38-year-old policeman has been charged with voluntary homicide over Nahel’s death and has been remanded in custody. The victim Nahel was of Algerian heritage and was shot during a traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Footage of the incident captured by a passerby showed two officers standing on the driver’s side of the car one of whom discharged his gun at the driver despite not appearing to face any immediate threat. The officer said he fired his gun because he was scared the boy would run someone over with the car. Protesters have been carrying signs that read “the police kill” and hundreds of government buildings have been damaged as Nahel’s death taps into anger over racial bias in the country. Overseas French territories have also witnessed violent protests. A man was killed by a stray bullet in Cayenne, capital of French Guiana, during riots. It was also reported that police have also detained at least 28 people in riots in Réunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean.
Macron gave himself 100 days to heal the country and reset his presidency after weeks of protests against unpopular pension reforms earlier this year. But hopes for a reset are now likely to be hampered by the widespread protests. It has not gone unnoticed that Macron attended an Elton John concert as cars burned and buildings were defaced across the country. The French government is working to avoid a repeat of 2005 when the deaths of two teenage boys hiding from police set off a state of emergency amid three weeks of rioting. The port city of Marseille has been the scene of intense clashes and looting, including in long-neglected low-income neighbourhoods visited by Macron at the start of the week. Macron did cut short his attendance at a European Council summit in Brussels and announced a ban on all large-scale events in France, including celebratory events and numerous gatherings. Macron has also called for social media platforms to help damp down the demonstrations, asking TikTok and Snapchat to withdraw the most sensitive content and to identify users who employ social networks to call for disorder or to exacerbate violence.
It is widely believed that Nahel’s race was a factor in his killing, unraveling deep-rooted tensions over police discrimination against minoritised communities in France. Though secularism is a key foundation of French culture as it seeks to uphold equality for all by erasing markers of difference, including race yet many people of colour in France say they are more likely to be victims of police brutality than White people. It is pointed out that that young men perceived to be Black or Arab were 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than their peers. Accusations of brutality have long plagued French police and even the Council of Europe criticised excessive use of force by state agents in a statement earlier this year during protests against Macron’s unpopular pension reforms. Amnesty International has particularly accused French police of ethnic profiling and have recommended deep, systemic reform to address the discrimination. The UN called on France to address deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement and to ensure use of force by police to address violent elements in demonstrations always respected the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, non-discrimination, precaution and accountability.
France is avoided as a visiting holiday destination where domestic transport networks have been disrupted. The Interior Ministry announced that public transportation, including buses and tramways, would shut down across the country by 9 p.m. local time. Limited curfews were imposed in Clamart and Neuilly-sur-Marne, while some bus services were disrupted in Paris but the Metro system was operating as normal. In Lille, bus and tramway services were more or less running normally with some diversions in place. In the southern city of Marseille public transport was due to stop services at 7 p.m. There was no disruption to the Eurostar service connecting London, Lille and Paris as a result of the protests and French intercity trains are also not affected.
The crisis is a hugely unwelcome development for President Emmanuel Macron, who was looking forward to pressing on with his second mandate after seeing off months of protests that erupted in January over raising the pensions age. Nahel’s funeral ceremony was held in Nanterre, where he lived, with hundreds gathering peacefully along with his mother and grandmother. A ceremony took place in the early afternoon at the mosque in Nanterre, and he was interred in the giant Mont Valerien cemetery in the area. The Weekender