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Amidst a wave of anger and rioting in French banlieues following the killing of a teenager by the police, the cycle of violence and indifference threatens to repeat itself. These neighbourhoods, originally built to house immigrant workers, have become synonymous with deprivation, ethnic conflict, and heavy-handed policing. President Emmanuel Macron faces a challenging task in addressing the underlying issues of resentment, under-education, and unemployment that fuel the violence. Real change in policing, including a more community-oriented approach, is needed, as well as efforts to combat social inequality and provide better public services. Macron’s promises to the younger generation are at stake as the spectre of urban violence looms large once again.
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French Riots’ Deja Vu Raises the Stakes for Macron: Lionel Laurent
By Lionel Laurent
A teenager killed by police in a Paris suburb. A wave of anger that morphs into widespread rioting and opportunistic looting. A tough law-and-order response followed by an appeal for unity and calm – and a political call for action that fades over time.
Such is the depressing “deja vu” cycle of violence over the years in the French banlieues, captured in movies like “La Haine” and in news footage beamed around the world over the past week. These neighborhoods built up to house immigrant workers in the 1960s and 1970s have become bywords for deprivation, ethnic conflict and military-style police tactics. And sadly, indifference.
It will take a lot of political willpower to make today’s cycle different from the last time violence flared up in 2005. The peak of rioting seems to have passed since a 45,000-strong deployment of law enforcement and Saturday’s funeral of French teenager Nahel, shot dead by a police officer on Tuesday. (Nahel’s last name wasn’t released by authorities because he was a minor). President Emmanuel Macron has scrapped a state visit to Germany, recognising this is no ordinary crisis: An estimated €100 million ($109 million) of damage has been dealt to stores, shopping malls, banks and more.
The omens aren’t great for change. Macron has no parliamentary majority and has lost political capital pushing through divisive flagship pension reform — which created its own extraordinary cycle of violence that also postponed a state visit, this time from King Charles. Meanwhile, the far right – positioning itself as the party of law and order and small businesses – has never been more popular. It’s reminiscent of the political fallout of 2005, when tough-talking Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy built support for a presidential run by pledging to clean the “scum” from the streets.
An online survey by Le Figaro amid the riots showed far-right leader Marine Le Pen leading with 39%, six points ahead of Macron. The far left, which refused to call for calm, trailed. Macron’s former center-right prime minister, Edouard Philippe, remains popular.
How did we get here, and what to do about it? There are two aspects to the violence that need addressing: One is the spark — in this case, the bullet that ended Nahel’s life— and the other a powder keg of resentment, under-education and unemployment.
On the spark, policing needs real change and would benefit from a more community-minded model. France is different from the US — it has less firearm use, a smaller prison population and a wider social safety net. Its problems stem from a lack of oversight and a disconnect from those it protects. The force fails to police itself: A 2016 report found that in 59 cases of lethal force used over a six-year period, only two had led to a legal action. And guardrails on curbing gun use have been eroded over time, according to researcher Sebastien Roche of CNRS, the national research center, citing an increase in deaths at police hands after a 2017 counterterrorism law.
That so much policing in the banlieues involves militarized crowd control and identity checks paradoxically speaks to an under-resourced, poorly trained force. Clichy-sous-Bois, epicenter of 2005 riots, had no police station until 2010 despite a higher crime incidence. Talk of color-blind republican values clashes with the evidence of numerous testimonials. Michel Zecler, a Black music producer who was badly beaten by police in his Parisian studio, told me in 2021: “Don’t tell me there’s no police racism after what I went through.”
As for the social powder keg, the ghettoisation of rich and poor in France has persisted even as income inequality is kept low by large-scale state redistribution. Access to public services is uneven: The flip side of police shortages in the banlieues are education shortcomings. Teachers turn over at a higher rate, and discrimination persists into employment. Paris has boomed while its environs have stagnated. Ali Rabeh, mayor of Trappes, calls it a “total failure of the republic.”
Inflation and Covid-19 have made things worse. Dozens of local counselors in May warned that the banlieues were in an emergency situation as higher building costs stalled vital renovation projects, rent payments went unpaid and uneven health-care resources exposed by the pandemic had left scars. Regeneration is seen as key to better housing, quality of life and security; studies suggest these are neighborhoods where people’s walking speed is double that measured in other, more pleasant towns.
Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that every generation is a new people. The young age of rioters — average age of 17 — suggests a people in danger of being lost. The viral video of a father dragging his son from the streets at night and throwing him into the trunk of his car was a poignant reminder of the high number of single-parent families struggling to keep control. A woeful lack of daycare in the area adds to families’ vulnerability; opening more kindergarten places was one of 31 ideas put forward by think tank Institut Montaigne last year to revive the banlieues.
There’s no magic bullet, and a lot of the violence will make some solutions even harder to accomplish — infrastructure for next year’s Olympic Games, seen as key to regenerating poor neighbourhoods, has been damaged. Macron is running out of time to keep his promises to the younger generation he claims to represent — and to avoid another case of urban violence deja vu.
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To contact the author of this story:
Lionel Laurent at [email protected]
© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.
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