Killing Of Teenager By Police Has Demonstrated The Reality Of ‘Color-Blind’ France

The killing of 17 year old Nahel Merzouk, a teenager with Algerian and Moroccan parents, by a police officer in the Paris suburb of Nanterre has triggered riots across France and caused intense debate regarding racism in French policing. On June 27th 2023, Nahel was fatally shot at point-blank by a police officer for driving off during a traffic stop. The police officer has been charged with voluntary homicide. The killing was captured on video, and has sparked protests across the country, primarily within disadvantaged urban areas and neighborhoods in France. Rioters have torched cars, looted stores and targeted town halls, state schools and state-owned properties. 

The response to Nahel’s death and the subsequent unrest has exposed the deep divides within French society, which fancies itself racially “blind”. The unrest have caused backlash amongst the wider French public, with ‘citizen’s gatherings’ taking place outside of town halls throughout the country to denounce the unrest. “We should cut everything, family allowances, everything related to welfare subsidies. Come on! If they are not happy, they return home to their country,” a pensioner in the gathering told Reuters. 

French police have long been accused of violence and racial profiling against black people and people of north African descent living in impoverished urban and racially mixed areas, known as ‘banlieues’ in France. Nahel’s history with the police has become a topic of conversation following his death; whilst Nahel had no criminal record, he was known to the police for using false number plates and driving without a license. Family lawyer Jennifer Cambla told the BBC, “I think in this kind of suburb it’s pretty rare that a young person hasn’t been stopped by police or hasn’t been in custody.” In the weeks following the killing, those close to Nahel contested his “character assassination” in the media, which other analysts point out is frequently used as a tactic to justify the crimes against victims of police violence.

The reality of racial profiling, racist police violence, and, more broadly, systemic racism in France has historically been difficult to address due to the official ‘nonexistence’ of race in the country. AP News released a report analyzing the dynamics of French ‘race-blindness’; pointing out that for white France, discussions of skin color can be seen as racist and discrimination is rarely framed in “black and white” or racial terms. According to the report, data regarding how many people of various races live in the country is not recorded. In the French Constitution, the French Republic and its values are considered universal regardless of the origin, race or religion of a citizen. However, this racial “blindness” is extremely surface level; the report points out how the attitudes produced by France’s colonial legacy in Africa and the Caribbean and ongoing division regarding postcolonial migration has impacted understandings of ‘French’ identity. The reality of black people and people of north African descent in France– socioeconomic division, racial profiling, and a lack of societal acceptance– contradicts the dominant French narrative. 

In an analysis of the uprising in France for The Guardian, Rokhaya Diallo, a French journalist and anti-racism activist, details the role of France’s history of systemic racism and racist police violence in the ongoing unrest taking place primarily within poorer French neighborhoods, drawing parallels between Nahel’s killing and the 2005 deaths of two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who were electrocuted hiding in an electricity substation after fleeing the police walking home from a game of football. Diallo points out France’s growing rates of racial profiling and police brutality in recent years. According to the Defender of Rights,  young men perceived to be black or of north African origin are 20 times more likely to be subjected to police identity checks than the rest of the population in France. In 2012, Human Rights Watch criticized France’s identity check system for its facilitation of repeated checks and abuse, and, in 2021, a class-action lawsuit was filed against the French state by Amnesty International and five other groups alleging ethnic profiling during identity checks. The UN committee on the elimination of racial discrimination denounced police identity checks  “disproportionately targeting certain minorities” and racist political discourse in France. However, the anti-racist campaigning and domestic and international criticism of police violence and racial profiling has not sparked any comprehensive policing reform. In 2017, a law passed that allowed police officers to shoot without self-defense justification and made it easier for police to use firearms. According to recent figures released by France’s police regulator, there were 37 deaths during police operations recorded in 2021, of whom ten were shot dead. One of Nahel’s family lawyers, Yassine Bouzrou, told the BBC, “We have a law and judicial system that protects police officers and it creates a culture of impunity in France.”

French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the killing as “unjustifiable,” and called for calm speaking to journalists in Marseilles; “We need calm for justice to carry out its work. And we need calm everywhere because the situation we can’t allow the situation to worsen”. Macron has postponed a state visit to Germany to meet with leaders of parliament and mayors of affected towns and cities. Diallo has pointed out that much of the focus has been placed upon the individual police officer, rather than the systemic issues and structures that perpetuate racism in policing. Much of the political discourse surrounding Nahel’s death points to the extreme reticence of French politicians to refer directly to race and entrenched racism; the government has instead discussed the impact of living in underprivileged low-income urban areas on juvenile delinquency. Following the first few days of protests, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin deployed 45,000 police around France in order to quell unrest. In the wake of Nahel’s killing, right-wing politicians have capitalized on concerns of French voters regarding safety, security, and underpolicing in urban areas and suburbs such as Nanterre in order to secure more support. In an interview with CNN, Philippe Marliere, a professor of French politics at University College London, much of the rhetoric has been that rioters “disrespect France, they hate it, they don’t want to integrate, they’re riff-raffs,” and as another example of how “France’s multiculturalism has failed.” French media personality and former candidate for the far-right National Rally Jean Messiha set up a GoFundMe for the family of the police officer who shot Nahel, which read  “Support for the family of the Nanterre police officer, Florian.M, who did his job and is now paying a high price. MASSIVELY support him and our police forces!” By Wednesday morning, the fundraiser for the police officer had more than 85,000 contributions and had raised over a million euros ($1.7 million), whilst a fund set up for Nahel’s mother had 21,000 contributions and raised 400,000 euros ($450,000).

Following Nahel’s killing, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, made a statement calling for the authorities to address “the structural and systemic causes of racial discrimination, including in law enforcement.” The statement also called upon France to create guidelines for law enforcement officials and police officers and create legislation prohibiting racial profiling and discriminatory identity checks. In response to the statement, Paris police chief Laurent Nuñez said the UN human rights office’s use of the word “racism” in its discussion of French policing practices was shocking. According to AP News, Nuñez stated that the police have none of it.  

Despite its longstanding myth of the ‘nonexistence’ of race in France, it is essential that the French government heeds the recommendations of the CERD and takes into account the reality of the systemic racism and racial profiling facing ethnic minorities in France and comprehensively reforms discriminatory policing practices through legislation. The current unrest throughout France is a product of entrenched, institutional discriminatory practices and violence within policing. In order to address the violent consequences of racial profiling and discriminatory identity checks, its root causes must be acknowledged within French political discourse. Continuing to deny the existence of racism within French society and institutions fundamentally misrepresents the reality of minorities in France and simply serves to enable the perpetuation of discrimination and police brutality. 


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