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What is happening in France?

Police brutality, systemic racism, social inequality, and a sense of marginalization have become increasingly prevalent in Western countries, and France is no exception. Recently, a tragic incident unfolded in Nanterre, France, where a police officer killed 17-year-old Algerian Nahel M. during a routine traffic stop. This event sparked widespread anger and protests, which unfortunately escalated into violence, looting, and clashes with the police. The riots spread to major cities across the country, resulting in significant damage, injuries, and arrests. The police officer involved has been charged with “voluntary manslaughter,” prompting President Emmanuel Macron to publicly denounce the events as “unforgivable” and “inexplicable.”

However, it is important to recognize that there are numerous underlying causes contributing to a situation like the one in Nanterre, France. The responsibility for the riots lies with various parties involved, with the initial trigger being the police officer’s actions in the fatal shooting. While the underlying causes and factors contributing to the unrest are complex and multifaceted, it would be inaccurate to deem them “inexplicable.” Decades of political repression followed by newfound freedom do not automatically eliminate biases within individuals, whether they are implicit or explicit. A repressed individual may still fear the oppressor, even if they are perceived as equal under the law, while the oppressor may still maintain a sense of superiority. This phenomenon is not unique to France; many Western countries, particularly the United States, have witnessed similar parallels in their own narratives. At the core of these riots lies a deep-seated sense of social inequality and discrimination faced by marginalized communities, particularly those of North African descent in France and Black people in America. These communities often endure economic disadvantages, educational disparities, and systemic racism that perpetuate cycles of poverty and exclusion.

The tragic killing of Nahel M. served as a tipping point in France, similar to the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd in the US, exposing the frustrations and anger that have been simmering beneath the surface for far too long. The Black population in America is highly similar to the North African population in France in the perceptions they receive about themselves. In the United States, the perception of Black people as lazy, unreliable, and rowdy stems from deeply rooted historical prejudices and systemic racism. These stereotypes have been used to justify discriminatory practices, deny economic opportunities, and perpetuate social inequalities. Similarly, in France, North Africans have often faced negative stereotypes and discrimination. They have been portrayed as lazy, unreliable, or prone to criminal behavior. These stereotypes, influenced by historical and colonial legacies, have contributed to social marginalization, economic disparities, and limited opportunities for the North African community. It is essential to recognize that these stereotypes are harmful and perpetuate systemic inequalities. Individuals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds have different talents, skills, and aspirations, and it is unjust to judge them based on stereotypes. Embracing diversity, challenging biases, and promoting inclusivity are crucial steps toward creating a more equitable and just society, both in the United States and France.

Furthermore, analyzing public opinion on the situation and President Macron’s leadership reveals the presence of domestic systemic racism and xenophobia in France. Colonialist France reveals a complex and multifaceted historical perspective that is essential to understanding the instability within France’s political system. As the colonialist power of three North African countries, namely Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the exodus of North African immigrants to France has been prevalent since the late 19th century. Moving primarily for labor and economic opportunities, North African immigrants were subjected to discrimination and poor living conditions, although they were necessary to the expansion of France’s economic growth. These economic and social disparities, coupled with prejudice and stereotypes, contributed to social tensions and occasional unrest within communities termed as “ethnic enclaves.”

The deep-seated discontent in low-income neighborhoods, such as these enclaves, further fuels the movement, as these communities tend to be the most marginalized when it comes to democratic policies. In recent years, debates surrounding immigration, integration, and multiculturalism have intensified in France. Issues such as religious expression, Islamophobia, socioeconomic disparities, and discrimination continue to shape the experiences of North African immigrants and their descendants. The turning point of French-North African relations was at the conception of independence for Algeria in 1962. At this point, there were already many Algerians living in France who chose to stay in France after the war. Because of the exfiltration of power over Algerians, France found resurrected xenophobic sentiments as another mass exodus occurred. The French government has implemented policies to address these challenges while trying to maintain a balance between national unity, cultural diversity, and social cohesion, although public opinion tends to be polarized and varied.

Some individuals express sympathy and support for the protesters, highlighting the urgent need to address social inequality and discrimination faced by marginalized communities. They argue that the riots are a result of deep-rooted issues that must be tackled by the government. On the other hand, there are those who condemn the violence and destruction caused by the riots, advocating for peaceful protests and dialogue instead. They argue that the damage to businesses and public property only worsens the situation and obstructs efforts for positive change. Moreover, staunch supporters of the French police argue that persecuting the officer in question, who is supposed to uphold the law, risks undermining the credibility police officers need to reduce the frequency of political unrest in France.

Additionally, amidst the ongoing unrest, it is important to note that the situation has been further complicated by the public’s response to the incident. A notable aspect is the significant amount of donations, exceeding one million euros, raised by the public for the family of the police officer involved in the shooting. While acts of solidarity and support are not uncommon during times of crisis, this particular development has deepened the divide between the protesters and those who have contributed to the donations. For the protesters, this outpouring of financial support for the police officer’s family can be seen as a stark illustration of the existing power dynamics and societal inequalities. It reinforces their perception that the system prioritizes the well-being and protection of law enforcement personnel over the lives and grievances of marginalized communities. This has only intensified their sense of frustration, anger, and distrust towards the authorities and the wider society.

On the other hand, those who have donated to the police officer’s family may argue that they are merely supporting the officer’s loved ones during a difficult time. They may emphasize the need to acknowledge the potential personal struggles and hardships faced by the officer’s family, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding the incident. However, this act of generosity has inadvertently fueled the hate divide between the protesters and the donors, contributing to an atmosphere of heightened tension and polarization. The stark contrast between the donations received by the police officer’s family and the lack of systemic support for the families of victims of police brutality further exacerbates the existing social and racial divisions. It underscores the disparities in empathy, resources, and societal priorities, reinforcing the perception of an unjust system that perpetuates inequality.

For example, French companies have been statistically proven to have a strong employment bias toward those of North African origin, where HR departments are much less likely to notify or respond to applicants of North African descent than those of European origin according to a study conducted by the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies[1]. In this same study, around 51% of immigrants from the Maghreb and 41% of descendants of immigrants from the same region report discrimination in hiring due to their nations of origin, even if the latter were born and raised in France. The figure below depicts that origin and religion have the most declarations for discrimination for immigrants and descendants of immigrant populations. This aspect of discrimination is only one of many that North Africans face which has inevitably resulted in the culmination of their frustrations towards France’s systematic efforts to remain in power over them.

Upheaving incidents such as the police killing of Nahel are not isolated to individuals, specific governmental sectors, or even single countries. Such situations require systemic change to comprehensively address the concerns of protesters worldwide. Law enforcement should never act as judge and jury with inadequately trained personnel. Our primary goal moving forward should be to prevent such incidents. How can we protect our citizens during routine traffic stops? How can we ensure that each police officer returns home safely? How do we create the justice that protesters are demanding? To move forward, it is imperative for the French government to take immediate action in addressing the systemic problems perpetuating these injustices. By fostering dialogue, engaging communities, ensuring justice, and promoting equal opportunities, France can embark on a journey toward healing and a more inclusive society. Lasting change can only be achieved through collective efforts, guaranteeing a brighter and more equitable future for all citizens. The French government, led by President Emmanuel Macron, bears the responsibility of addressing the situation, restoring order, and tackling the underlying issues that have contributed to the unrest. It is crucial for the French government to address the grievances of the protesters, ensure accountability for any law enforcement misconduct, and work towards social reforms that promote equality and justice.

Several potential solutions can be considered by the French government to address this issue effectively. One crucial aspect is strengthening accountability and oversight. Independent civilian oversight bodies should be established with the authority to investigate complaints of police misconduct, while transparent disciplinary procedures should be in place to hold officers accountable. Improving data collection and analysis of police interactions can help identify patterns of abuse and discrimination.

Enhancing police training and diversity is another key area. Comprehensive training programs should be implemented to educate law enforcement personnel about human rights, diversity, cultural sensitivity, and de-escalation techniques. Promoting diversity within the police force ensures better representation and understanding of the communities they serve. Community policing initiatives that foster stronger relationships between police and residents are also vital for building trust and cooperation. Reviewing and revising policing tactics is crucial as well. Police strategies should prioritize community engagement, problem-solving, and nonviolent approaches. Emphasizing de-escalation techniques and utilizing force as a last resort is essential. Regular dialogue between police and community members can help address concerns and develop shared strategies.

Legal reforms affirmatively play a significant role in combating police brutality. Laws and policies should be reviewed and updated to align with human rights standards and avoid disproportionate targeting of specific communities. Clear guidelines and limitations on the use of force must be established, while legal protections for victims of police brutality should be enhanced. Community empowerment and awareness are crucial aspects of the solution. Education programs should inform residents about their rights and responsibilities when interacting with the police. Partnerships between community organizations, advocacy groups, and law enforcement agencies can promote dialogue and collaboration. Anonymous channels for reporting police misconduct should be established to ensure a safe environment for victims. In the midst of these complexities, it becomes crucial to foster a constructive dialogue that allows for a better understanding of different perspectives. Meaningful conversations and efforts to bridge the gap between the protesters and the donors can help promote empathy, compassion, and a collective commitment to address the underlying issues of police brutality, systemic racism, and social inequality. Cultural competency training and exchange programs within law enforcement agencies can help promote sensitivity and respect.

While these solutions provide a starting point, it is important to recognize that addressing police brutality requires collaboration among experts, community representatives, and policymakers to tailor specific approaches to the unique circumstances in France. Implementing these measures will take time and sustained commitment from all stakeholders involved. Ultimately, true progress can only be achieved when there is a sincere and comprehensive effort to address these deeply ingrained problems, while also promoting unity, justice, and equal opportunities for all members of society.


[1] https://www.insee.fr/fr/statistiques/6793310?sommaire=6793391#onglet-2

Shruti Satish

A distinguished alumna of The Ohio State University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science, with a focus on International Relations and Diplomacy. Presently, she is pursuing her passion for knowledge and global affairs at the renowned Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Eagerly committed to her academic journey, she is determined to excel and achieve a Master's degree in International Relations and Political Science. Notably, Shruti is actively involved in her field, working for both the Politics and Society Institute and the Institute for Global Cohesion, where she seeks to make a meaningful impact on the world's political landscape.

Shruti Satish

A distinguished alumna of The Ohio State University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science, with a focus on International Relations and Diplomacy. Presently, she is pursuing her passion for knowledge and global affairs at the renowned Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. Eagerly committed to her academic journey, she is determined to excel and achieve a Master's degree in International Relations and Political Science. Notably, Shruti is actively involved in her field, working for both the Politics and Society Institute and the Institute for Global Cohesion, where she seeks to make a meaningful impact on the world's political landscape.
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