This time, the riots followed the point-blank police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk after a car chase. The cost of the riots in a mere week — over $1 billion in damages to businesses — towers above that of 2005, but perhaps more notable is that the discussion of the banlieues has receded, or is mediated through, the lens of the police. (In fact, this echoes a different French film, Ladj Ly’s 2019 crime thriller Les Miserables; the last prophetic image is of a young boy beside himself with trauma and anger brandishing a gun in the face of a cop.) Today the majority of rioters don’t have an immigrant background, and most of them are minors, some as young as 12 — in other words only a few years younger than the victim. It is their extreme youth combined with what has been characterized as their hyper violence that makes headlines.
The images we see are shocking, yes. There’s almost a one-upmanship on social media that pits three burnt busses against one gutted city hall (and I’ll raise you two looted McDonald’s). The scale of the destruction is breathtaking; it’s frequently symbolic, but often merely opportunistic — and sometimes downright incomprehensible in its perversity, like the assaults on the medical personnel trying to put some of these kids back together.
But today, despite all that is dystopian in these scenes of enraged children driven to trash their very own environment, almost everyone gets it. Few are actually surprised.
This is why 2023 is different from 2005. Regardless of the mindlessness of some of the destruction, the young people rampaging across French cities and towns are also expressing a deep anger rooted in humiliation that is felt across the country, not just in the banlieues. You could argue that for many French people, regardless of where they live, the nature of governance and decision-making in the past few years means that they all feel like “riff-raff” now.
What’s important to remember is that Macron’s governance is not incompetent — far from it. In comparison to the manner in which other major advanced democracies handled Covid, the energy crisis or inflation, France has done quite well. The trouble is that the people — the French rather than France — feel like they keep drawing the short straw when it comes to their voices and preferences being taken into account, their political and civic rights respected, their humanity protected.
From the often violent repression of the gilets jaunes (yellow vest movement) and 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, the current government, despite its technocratic prowess, has given nearly every segment of French society, across all demographics and regions, cause to feel that they are governed sometimes competently but almost always with humiliating impunity. And too many have been injured or killed by police in the process; statistics show that French police kill four times more today than they did in 2010, fueling cycles of protest and repression.
That’s not to diminish the hardship and injustice faced far too often by some in French society rather than others. But the reality is, the oxygen behind these waves of increasingly frequent and increasingly violent displays is in part the fact that everyone in France has had at least a small taste of the humiliation that many have endured for decades — aside from those whose thirst for an order based exclusively on exaction and punishment drives them to the harder edges of the right.
In these early days of summer 2023, what floats above the smoldering remains of the riots, is the shared sense across French society that their problems are being systematically exacerbated by the actions of the police — and by those of a judiciary that tends to criminalize the victims and treat their families with disdain. It is an irony that this is what may finally provide a shared point of reference across French towns, communities, classes and creeds: That enough is enough and that root-and-branch police reform is not only necessary but urgent after decades of combined neglect and empowerment. But instead, as already pointed out by some, France has systematically passed legislation to further arm the police year after year over the last two decades.
The cycle of violence, from police and rioters, is taking place in a fragmented political landscape that is only going to get tougher to navigate. The riots are driving the right and far-right closer together — a tendency that is present across many European democracies and that will have profound consequences for next year’s European Parliament elections. But they also create pressures on a deeply-divided left — torn between their desires for social justice and the demands of a base that is increasingly receptive to the far-right’s promises of order.
Macron must confront this dilemma or risk making injustice and humiliation the exclusive drivers of French politics — an outcome that will only lead to further destruction and potentially catastrophic results in the presidential election of 2027.