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From Protest to Policy: Examining France's Social Unrest and Inequality

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

The recent wave of protests and violence in France was triggered by the shooting of a seventeen-year-old French man of Algerian descent by a French police officer in the suburb of Nanterre, west of Paris. Striking parallels emerge between the murder of Nahel M. and the events that unfolded after the murder of George Floyd, which ignited extensive protests against racism in the United States and reverberated globally in 2020.


This also mirrored a series of past violent uprisings in the Parisian suburbs. The deaths of two immigrant teenagers by electrocution while being pursued by police in Clichy-sous-Bois sparked three weeks of rioting and prompted the government to declare a state of emergency in 2005.


France has been experiencing its current social and political upheaval due to the recent debt crisis, lack of consensus between government and citizens since the “Yellow Vest” protests, unpopular pension reforms, and longstanding racial tensions. The common factor among these issues is the use of police violence.


The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over the killing of Nahel M. and emphasised the importance of peaceful assembly. Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the commission, called on French authorities to respect the principles of law, non-discrimination, and to ensure that force is not used disproportionately in dealing with protests. “This is a moment for the country to seriously address the deep-rooted issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement,” Shamdasani stated. France faces a genuine problem regarding minority rights, especially those whose origins can be traced back to immigrants, representing approximately eight percent of the French population.


There is a consensus among observers that the relationship between disadvantaged immigrants of non-European origin and other segments of the population are extremely poor and deteriorating rapidly in France.


A study conducted by the country’s Human Rights Commissioner found that young individuals of African or Arab extraction were subject to police stops at a rate of up to twenty times higher than others. Many of these individuals have roots in former French colonies and live in what are known as banlieues, the outskirts of major cities like Paris, Marseille, and Lyon.


Article 435.1 of the Internal Security Law came into effect in France in 2017, granting police officers the possibility to expand the use of firearms, whereas previously they were only allowed to do so in self-defence.

Many observers consider this law as the beginning of France's transformation into a police state. In 2022 alone, the country witnessed a record number of people killed by police officers after refusing to comply with traffic checks, with the death toll reaching thirteen. French law enforcement have also been responsible for the highest number of civilian deaths by police in Europe, with 444 people killed from 1977 to 2020.


The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that most victims of such incidents were of Arab or black origin. France however responded by stating that the accusation against its police force suffering from racial problems and racism was “baseless and unfounded.”


Critics of immigration, particularly those with xenophobic sentiments, benefit from these types of crises. Right-wing politicians across Europe have exploited these disturbances to foster anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiments on social media, as well as to advocate for stricter immigration policies.


Marine le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, claimed the riots that followed Nahel’s killing “clearly have a connection to immigration,” and that “a large majority of the individuals involved in the riots are foreigners or of foreign origin.” However, French interior minister Gérald Darmanin pointed out that 90% of those arrested for violence, vandalism, and looting were French citizens and that the number of foreigners among the four thousand arrested did not exceed ten percent.


The French state adopts racist policies and treats immigrants in a manner reminiscent of its treatment of colonised peoples, reproducing and adapting the legacy of imperialism to suit current conditions. This is evident in the geographically-targeted distribution policies for immigrants and the type of housing built to accommodate them, as well as how they were treated in the 1960s and 1970s. The influx of immigrants since the end of the Algerian War led to the construction of entire neighbourhoods without urban planning. These sprawling areas became extremely difficult and isolated places over time, where residents suffer from economic and intellectual poverty. Immigrants at the time constituted thirty percent of the suburban population, a number that has now tripled to 90%.


Poverty, dilapidated buildings, unemployment, lack of opportunities, and social isolation are challenges faced by youth growing up in French suburbs. The added effect of institutional racism, which has persisted for generations, results in uncontrollable bursts of rage.


It should also be noted that the French government has been grappling with ongoing protests since 2017. President Macron has spent two controversial terms in office dismantling labour laws, weakened labour unions, reduced housing allowances for the poor, and curtailed the rights of the unemployed. His proposed pension system reform was yet another unpopular policy. Macron simultaneously lowered taxes for the wealthy, increased tax breaks for corporations, and reduced social security contributions.


The French president is not alone in facing popular anger. Billionaires have also been subjected to derogatory chants during recent violent protests, as they are seen as supporters of Macron’s policies, earning him the moniker, “President of the wealthy.” The income gap in France has widened, with the top one percent of the rich owning 20% of the country’s wealth, widening the country’s class conflict. These policies can be considered a fast and certain recipe for revolutions–not an unprecedented event in France, of all countries. The resentment towards this “privileged wealthy minority” by other segments of the population and the perceived threat they pose to traditional French ways of life serve as strong motivations for a nationwide uprising.


The ongoing protests are motivated by an objection to Macron’s neoliberal policies, although their demands have varied from year to year.


The Yellow Vest movement came into being on November 17, 2018, as a response to the mounting concerns among the French population. Starting as a grassroots initiative in May 2018, it grew into a formidable force by November of the same year. The spark that ignited protests across France was the frustration over escalating fuel prices and the burden of living costs. The movement's objectives evolved to encompass the reversal of government-imposed tax reforms. The movement's momentum was evident as nearly 290,000 French citizens donned yellow vests and rallied to push their demands.


The resonance of people's voices persisted in 2019 when Paris and various cities hosted thousands of demonstrators rallying against proposed reforms to the retirement system. A year later, in 2020, the French public voiced their disapproval of a security law aimed at enhancing surveillance measures and restricting the dissemination of images of law enforcement officers. In 2021, protests emerged critiquing the government's handling of the COVID crisis. This year, dissent flared over a retirement law that President Emmanuel Macron enacted without parliamentary approval, culminating in a remarkable May Day turnout of around 2.3 million demonstrators, marking the largest protest in French history.


Throughout these protests, instances of vandalism have been evident, notably during the Yellow Vest demonstrations when Paris witnessed riots alongside the main gatherings. Acts of arson, shattered windows, looted stores, and bank fires marred the city. The financial repercussions were significant, with losses mounting to around 6 billion euros due to the protests. It's important, however, to steer clear of associating immigrants with such destructive actions, as that perpetuates a harmful cycle of blame without considering the root causes.


These incidents highlight a growing chasm between different socioeconomic strata in French society. The tragedy involving Nahel is emblematic of deeper challenges within the French police and broader racial dynamics. The economic downturn affects all French citizens, including immigrants who have long faced marginalization and neglect in suburban areas. These regions, home to around 20 million people across 3,300 municipalities, receive significantly fewer resources compared to other places. Despite these realities, stereotypes persist, often dismissing residents as stagnant and prone to drug use. Addressing these issues requires a holistic approach that refrains from prejudicial narratives and aims for understanding and change.


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