French Riots 2023- It is Not The Same
It is very tempting to think of the recent riots in France as merely a continuation of the shocking events in 2005. Then, riots that lasted 21 days rocked France’s “banlieues” (a term for largely impoverished multiracial communities) and made headlines around the world. Long-standing political, economic, and social problems in France do account for why conditions have not improved since. Why police violence against rebellious young men of Arab or non-Western descent is worse or more frequent, even though they are frequently defenseless?
The Frech Riots 2023 is not the same-
But unlike previous instances, the stunning disorder that has recently afflicted France comes from a different source.
Today’s riots are a manifestation of widespread and paroxysmal rage due to a sense of humiliation and dispossession that permeates French society and transcends the banlieues. That should cause serious concern for democratic leaders throughout the West, not just for President Emmanuel Macron.
Now let’s go back to 2005- French Riots:
Two young men were killed by police while being chased by them during those riots, and the fate of the banlieues quickly came up in conversation. It had been ten years since the release of Mathieu Kassovitz’s film La Haine, which in many ways continues to shape the conversation surrounding such events. The three-week rampage was seen through the prism of Kassovitz’s portrayal of racial relations and the alienation of youth in the banlieues, as well as former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy’s rhetoric about “cleaning up the riffraff” in those very neighborhoods.
This time, riots broke out after a car chase and the point-blank shooting by police of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old. More noteworthy than the $1 billion in business damages caused by the riots in just one week is the fact that the discussion of the banlieues has been sidelined or is now filtered through the eyes of the police. (In actuality, this is reminiscent of another French film, Ladj Ly’s 2019 crime thriller Les Miserables, in which the final foreboding scene features a young boy beside himself with anger and trauma brandishing a Molotov cocktail at a police officer brandishing a gun.) Today, most rioters lack a history of immigration and are minors, some as young as 12 — making them only a few years younger than the victim. The combination of their extreme youth and what has been called their hyperviolence is what grabs attention.
Yes, the images we see are horrifying. On social media, there’s almost a competition pitting three burned buses against one gutted city hall (and I’ll add two looted McDonald’s). The level of devastation is staggering; it is frequently symbolic, but frequently merely opportunistic — and occasionally downright incomprehensible in its perversity, like the attacks on the doctors and nurses who were trying to fix some of these kids.
Today, however, almost everyone understands it, despite all that is dystopian in these images of enraged children driven to destroy their environment. Few people are shocked.
Because of this, 2023 will be distinct from 2005. Although some of the destruction was mindless, the young people who were rampaging through French cities and towns were also venting a deep anger that had its roots in humiliation and was felt all over the country, not just in the banlieues. You could make the case that many French people, regardless of where they reside, feel like “riff-raff” now as a result of recent governance and decision-making practices.
It’s crucial to keep in mind that Macron’s leadership is anything but inept. France has done quite well in comparison to how other significant advanced democracies handled COVID, the energy crisis, or inflation. The issue is that the French people, rather than France itself, consistently get the short end of the stick when it comes to having their opinions heard, their political and civil rights upheld, and their humanity safeguarded.
Despite its technocratic prowess, the current government has given nearly every sector of French society, across all demographics and regions, a reason to feel that they are governed occasionally competently but almost always with humiliating methods, from the often violent repression of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest movement) to Macron’s broken promises of a changed governing style to the ramming through of pension reform (without a vote) in the face of massive, violent protests. In the process, too many people have been hurt or killed by police; statistics show that today’s French police kill four times as many people as they did in 2010, which feeds cycles of unrest and repression.
That’s not to minimize the hardship and injustice that too many people in French society experience at the expense of others. The reality is that everyone in France has experienced some level of humiliation that many have endured for decades, except those whose thirst for an order based solely on exaction and punishment drives them to the harder edges of the right. This is what gives rise to these waves of increasingly frequent and violent demonstrations.
The common perception among French society that their problems are being systematically made worse by the actions of the police and by a judiciary that frequently criminalizes the victims and treats their families with contempt is what rises above the smoldering ruins of the riots in these early days of summer 2023. Ironically, this is what might finally offer a common reference point for French towns, communities, classes, and creeds: That after decades of combined neglect and empowerment, enough is enough. That root and branch police reform is not only necessary but urgent. However, as some have already noted, over the past 20 years France has consistently passed legislation to arm the police further.
The cycle of violence between rioters and police is occurring in an increasingly difficult-to-navigate political environment. The riots are bringing the right and far-right closer together, a trend seen in many European democracies that will have a significant impact on the elections for the European Parliament next year. However, they also put pressure on a deeply divided left, which is torn between the demands of a base that is becoming more receptive to the far-right’s promises of order and their desires for social justice.
Macron must face this conundrum or risk letting injustice and humiliation become the sole motivators of French politics, which would only result in more destruction and possibly disastrous outcomes in the 2027 presidential election.