On June 27, 2023, French police shot and killed a teenager named Nahel M. in the working-class Parisian suburb of Nanterre. Anonymous police sources told French media that the 17-year-old tried to drive into them causing the police officer to use his firearm.
But a video of the incident circulating on social media showed the two officers standing by the driver’s side window and appearing to shoot Nahel as the vehicle began to move.
Protests and riots ensued for the next week, with local news outlets reporting that the average protester was only 17 years old — the same age as Nahel. The anger spread quickly around the country. There were riots in the suburbs of Paris, but also those near Lyon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, and Lille. Protests also took place in France’s overseas territories. Rioters burned cars, buses, police stations, town halls, schools, and libraries and aimed fireworks at riot police. Many involved in riots said they didn’t know Nahel but they could have just as easily been in his place.
In Nanterre, the AP reported capturing a wall spray painted with the phrase, “Without video, Nahel would be a statistic.”
Nahel’s death is just the latest in a string of police acts of violence against France’s racialized population. Most of the police’s victims have been Black or of North African ancestry. Still, in recent years French officials have rejected any description of their institutions as racist and instead granted them even more liberties that have led to deaths.
In 2017, French lawmakers gave police the right to shoot at motorists fleeing traffic stops. It was enacted with terrorist attacks in mind. Instead, there’s been an uptick in non-terrorism-related police shootings. Nahel’s was the third fatal shooting by police at traffic stops this year and the 21st since 2020. Nahel was a French citizen whose family has roots in Morocco and Algeria.
“This is a moment for the country to seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement on June 30, 2023.
Nahel’s death is just the latest in a string of police acts of violence against France’s racialized population. Most of the police’s victims have been Black or of North African ancestry.
Despite the recurrent problem of minorities being killed by police, few in France have called for police reform. French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the killing, calling it “inexplicable and unforgivable” but there seems to be little appetite inside the country to even entertain the idea that race might be an issue. In fact, those international calls by human rights groups have been largely dismissed by French officials. “In France racism is not at the basis of our police officer’s ideology,” Shanon Seban, a city councilor and member of Macron’s Renaissance party from the Parisian suburb of Rosny-Sous-Bois, told the BBC. “I am condoning this accusation…because I can perfectly testify that our police officers are brave and not racist at all.”
France officially abides by a policy of colorblindness. Since 1978, collecting data on race has been illegal. Before 2018, the French constitution said, “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It ensures equality before the law for all citizens, without distinction of sex, origin, race, or religion.” But the word race was removed in 2018.
So how to explain the riots then? Macron blamed parents, video games and suggested blocking social media. His economy minister said calling the French police racist is unacceptable. Many in France said the riots were imposing harm on their own communities. The far-right news channel C-News offered an analysis from a panel of four white men who said rioters were enacting the ideology of the far left.
“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture,” psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote in one of his seminal works, “The Wretched of the Earth.” “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”
After Nahel’s murder in Nanterre, police were deployed to street corners. A policeman was captured on video telling a local woman, “Go back to Africa.” The woman had allegedly told the officer, “You shot a 17-year-old child in cold blood.”
The video was one example that if France is officially colorblind, many in its police forces are not. Seventy percent of French police allegedly support the country’s far-right. Young men perceived to be Arab or Black are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police, according to a 2017 study by an independent human rights group.
Fanon once wrote that colonized sectors are seen as disreputable places inhabited by disreputable people. Many in the suburbs of France’s major cities have ancestry in former colonies. And the attitude projected onto these suburbs — filled with racialized subjects — is arguably carried over from France’s days of empire. Simply look at a statement released by a French police union that claimed to be “at war” with “vermin” and “savage hordes.”
“We are fed up, we are French too,” Mohamed Jakoubi, who took part in a peaceful march for Nahel, told Reuters. “We are against violence, we are not scum.”
Discrimination extends beyond the police and into French society at large. North Africans and Black people in France face discrimination in the job and housing markets. And in a February 2023 survey, nine out of ten Black people said they’d been racially discriminated against in France. If these are dismissed as acts of passive discrimination, it’s become clear that a segment of the population is openly antagonistic toward France’s minority populations.
One former advisor to the far-right politician Marine Le Pen started a GoFundMe for the family of the policeman who killed him. New donations have been disabled but over 1.6 million Euros ($1.75 million) were raised. Tens of thousands of people donated. A fundraiser for Nahel’s family meanwhile only brought in about a quarter of that.
For Macron, a centrist who has gradually shifted and at times entertained the far-right, Nahel’s death was an individual act. He may believe justice was served upon the policeman’s arrest. But many of his own citizens are saying an arrest is not enough to stop this from happening again. Macron announced an emergency bill to hastily rebuild the damage from the riots and met with 300 French mayors to find “fundamental answers.” But if he hasn’t understood the question yet, it may be too late.