After cops shot and killed 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in the Paris working-class suburb of Nanterre June 27, five nights of angry protests throughout France ensued. These protests targeted cars, buses, public transportation, city halls, cop stations, stores and schools, burning some of the targets
Nahel – as everyone calls him – was born in France of Algerian and Moroccan descent, which makes him similar to many of the young inhabitants of the suburbs of French cities who can trace their roots to former French colonies in North and Sub-Saharan Africa. He was their peer, their buddy, their “kid brother.”
Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, who directs the French police, deployed 45,000 cops and gendarmes (armed military police) to city streets across France with armored personnel carriers to shove barricades out of the road. Cops charged in formation, and fired volleys of rubber-coated bullets and tear gas canisters.
The young protesters responded with rocks and fireworks launched from handheld mortars.
Some 800 cops claimed injuries. At least 3,600 protesters, with an average age of 17, were arrested. Many were tried by a judge within a day or two of their arrest in a process called “comparution immédiate” or rapid trial. Although defendants are allowed a lawyer and young defendants usually get more lenient treatment, these rapid trials can result in prison sentences of up to two years.
Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti formally advised prosecutors to “systematically seek prison sentences for people charged with physical assault.”
The stories of some defendants in these cases revealed how deprived are many youth in the working-class suburbs of major French cities. In one case, the defendant was arrested carrying a sack of peaches and apricots; he hadn’t eaten any fruit for a year.
Another defendant was arrested while he was asleep on the floor of a clothing store using some clothes for a pillow. He was homeless, sleeping under a bridge with just a mattress that had been waterlogged for weeks.
Although President Emmanuel Macron quickly criticized the police killing as “unforgivable” and tweeted, “We share the emotion and pain of Nahel’s family and close friends,” his tweet then clarified his position. “Our police and gendarmes are engaged to serve and protect the Republic,” wrote Macron. “I thank them every day for that.”
Macron’s tweet is impersonal and distant from the distress and anger in the working-class suburbs of France. He avoided the issue of whether or not police killing in France is systemic, which allows him to claim the killing of Nahel Merzouk was an individual mistake.
Macron recognized that the Yellow Vests movement – a series of protests for economic justice begun in 2018 – was directed against forcing non-urban French workers to pay more for transportation. After heavy police repression of the protests resulted in multiple fatalities and at least one protester losing an eye, he made some small concessions.
Macron forced two more years of work on the union movement, maneuvering this “pension reform” through without a vote in parliament. He admitted the movement had a point in protesting his tactics. But he has yet to admit that racist police practices in France are part of the system because it’s his system that is being challenged.
On the right, the National Rally (RN), led by Marine Le Pen, denounced “savage hordes of protesters” let into France by “crazy immigration laws.” The RN wants to lower the age when a person can be tried as an adult from 18 to 16. The racists are also promoting a call to drive former prisoners from public housing and to deny them government aid.
Reactions of the left
The left is getting together and has drawn up a sharp critique of how the French government has treated the large North and West African communities who now are living in the suburbs of its cities. These suburban communities are the legacy of French imperialism, which colonized and pillaged the countries these communities originated from.
Some are descendants of soldiers from Algeria – which was legally part of France until 1962 – and other African countries who fought under French command in World War I, which was fought between colonial powers for control of those colonies. This partly explains why Islam is the religion in France with the largest number of practicing members.
Some 90 organizations, including trade unions (General Confederation of Labor or CGT, Solidaires), political parties (La France Insoumise – Rebellious France, Europe Ecology – The Greens, the New Anticapitalist Party), associations (Human Rights League, Amnesty International) and neighborhood collectives, have signed a joint text to express “mourning” and “anger” and denounce “decades of discriminatory and public policies driven by security.”
Some of the political parties considered to be on the left in France like the French Communist Party (PCF) and the Socialist Party (PS) avoided signing this text. The PCF made it clear it would refuse to blame the police in general for cops who have dangerous, racist behavior. PCF National Secretary Fabien Roussel criticized Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise, for blaming the police in general. Roussel has presented a plan to end the crisis, based on investments in the suburbs.
While no progressive would oppose greater investment in the suburbs, any Marxist should view the police in a capitalist, imperialist country like France to be the central part of a repressive state whose main role is protecting capitalist property and repressing workers and any popular movements.
Any revolutionary Marxist movement would cheer on the calls from the suburbs to smash the police – just as Marx and his adherents cheered for those in the Paris Commune of 1871 who “stormed heaven.”
With militant, activist unions like the CGT and associations like Attac France, it is likely that marches supporting the anti-racist youth will be held, perhaps on Bastille Day, July 14.