- Interview by
- Harrison Stetler
France’s presidential election is only days away, with incumbent Emmanuel Macron flanked by far-right Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the left-populist France Insoumise. If Mélenchon’s surge isn’t enough to make the second round, we’ll likely see a rematch of the 2017 face-off between Le Pen and Macron. This would do justice to the hardening reactionary turn among much of France’s political class — but it is a poor reflection of the on-the-ground mobilizations that have punctuated the last five years.
Taha Bouhafs has had a front-row seat on the turbulence of the Macron era. Today aged twenty-four, he first gained national notoriety for capturing the footage of Macron’s bodyguard Alexandre Benalla beating up protesters during the 2018 Labor Day protests in Paris. Since then, Bouhafs has become a leading activist and journalist whose work focuses on social movements and police violence. Released this winter, Bouhafs’s first book, Ceux qui ne sont rien (Those Who Are Nothing), is a first-person retelling of the high-pitched moments in French politics since 2016.
Bouhafs spoke with Jacobin’s Harrison Stetler about police violence, racism, and the dangerous work of being a politically engaged journalist in Macron’s France.
In Ceux qui ne sont rien, you recount your political coming-of-age. You begin in spring 2016, during the Nuit Debout movement against François Hollande’s reform of the labor code. Can you describe what this moment meant for you?
It was a complicated time for me. I was going on eighteen and had just left school. The school system often looks at kids like me as if we are not worth the trouble or the resources, funneling us to vocational schools just to get us out of the educational system. I had just started working: during the week, I worked at a small deli, and on the weekend at a ski resort near Grenoble. So you really have to understand what it’s like to have no academic or career prospects, and start to realize that things are only going to get tougher.
It was also a year after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I am a Muslim, and we saw an outpouring of hatred against the Muslim community, including from left-wing political figures and forces like the Socialist Party. The state of emergency had just been introduced: a whole series of measures, like house arrests and warrant-less searches, used specifically against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim. I started to really see that I was relegated to being a second-class citizen, with different rights in the school system or in the job market.
But it’s also when I became aware of politics — of everything that, because I was a young working-class immigrant, I had to take it into account. I didn’t have the luxury not to! I didn’t become political because I read such and such book in the so-called “republican school,” or because I listened to this or that revolutionary speech, or because I’m a pure soul and wanted to help others or whatever. No, I got involved in politics to improve my life. And I saw that in order to change my situation, I had to change society.
What did politics mean to you before ? How did it influence the way you perceived the revival of social movements in France?
My family history meant that I was already politicized, in the sense that I was aware that there were things that came from beyond and before me. I was born in Algeria, where my two grandfathers had both fought in the war for national liberation. Both were sentenced to death by guillotine. One escaped, the other was released from prison upon independence. When you have a family history colored by war or conflict like mine, your very existence is punctuated by the fact that political decisions have direct consequences on your life.
In spring 2016, there was a guy where I worked, a union rep who I had a lot of respect for, who came and told me that a bill had been proposed, the El Khomri law, which would reform the labor code. He told me that it would make it easier for bosses to lay off workers and that there was going to be a demonstration in Grenoble and that we had to go.
When I went to the protest, I immediately felt at ease, even in a space like downtown Grenoble that had always been unwelcoming to me — socially, in terms of cost, in terms of how people looked at me. I was always chased out of this area, and here I reappropriated it through the protests. So, I started to evolve in a new social environment, to meet people that I would not have met before, and to learn. It was an education — both personal and political.
It was important for me to discover that there were people who came before me who had asked the same questions, who encountered the same difficulties. And at a time when it was even more difficult to mobilize politically, at a time when Arabs who organized were thrown into the Seine by the police. I learned more about the history of the immigrant-worker struggle.
A quote from Emmanuel Macron serves as the title of your book. You give your narrative of the last six years, splitting it up with some of Macron’s speeches and finally segments where you step back and let individuals and activists you’ve met speak. It gives something of a panorama of the people in France who, since 2016, have rejected the idea that “they are nothing.” What leads people to reject the depoliticization that is being imposed on them?
The line from Macron is from 2017, just after he entered office. He said, “train stations are places where we cross paths with people who succeed, and people who are nothing.” This is an extremely violent thing to say. He does not say people who do nothing — the unemployed, for example. He doesn’t say, people who have nothing — the poor. He says, people who are nothing. Their very existence has no value, no importance. This teaches us something about Macron’s outlook: people are just numbers. He doesn’t recognize the humanity of people not like him. I immediately recognized this phrase as his description of people like me.
Of course, austerity and neoliberalism in France did not start with Macron. But what really characterizes his time in office is contempt. His comments about slackers, that “to get a job, you just need to cross the street” — these are violent remarks, which no doubt played a role in provoking the major revolts of the last few years.
This is what I wanted to show in this book: faced with this contempt, and power from on high, there are people who rose up and resisted and who showed that they are not “nothing” — the undocumented workers at the Chronopost branch in Alfortville, the committee for Adama Traoré [a young black man killed by police], the women [mostly cleaning workers] at the Ibis hotel in Batignolles. These are women who have lived through immigration, who are at the intersection of so many forms of oppression, and yet they still organized and stood up against the Accor group. They didn’t give up and they won 95 percent of their demands!
I intended this book to be an invitation to political reappropriation, with two aspects. The first, as a story of political education, was to show that it is not because you didn’t go to Sciences Po that you cannot understand the issues of the society you live in, or that you can’t organize politically. The second aspect is more journalistic: I wanted to tell the story of how normal people — those, according to Macron, who are “nothing” — refused mere resignation, with incredible dignity and strength. Not only have the French people who have mobilized since 2017 discovered a remarkable capacity for resistance. They discovered a capacity to propose another way of organizing their neighborhoods, their workplaces, and society.
Let’s go back to your own story. By 2018, you’d arrived in Paris, and there were the first social movements of the Macron years: rail worker strikes, university occupations. It is in this period that you became a video-journalist. Why? You write in your book that “no one can deny an image.” But is this really true? Mainstream French media seems to have mastered the art of ignoring the reality of life and social violence.
First of all, I look at journalism as a form of political engagement. I didn’t become a journalist because I love journalism, or because I had watched some movie where the superhero was a journalist. No: I don’t think I like journalists all that much.
But, since I was a kid watching TV reports about my neighborhood or others like it, I saw that they didn’t correspond at all with reality. They are portrayed as some sort of lawless area where violence reigns, in the grips of barbarians who have no humanity whatsoever. We were never given a voice — on TV debates, we were either criminals or clowns. We were not allowed to have any other representatives.
And the same goes for social movements. When I would get home after a demonstration and watch TV, there was nothing about why people went on strike, or why they went to demonstrate. There’d be some pundit and a police union representative discussing images of three burning trash cans. So I started filming and I put the clips on Twitter or on Facebook so that at least between us we could understand what’s going on.
I do journalism to tell the stories of our lives, our victories, and our struggles — to take back control of our narrative. There’s a very utilitarian aspect to my work. That is, I ask myself how I can be useful to the struggle, to the vision of society that I think is true.
And above all, journalism is a counter-power. At a time when the justice system is broken, when the police is broken, when the French state functions almost explicitly against Arabs, against the working classes, I had to do something. I didn’t want to be a passive witness of injustice, of the democratic or environmental collapse of our societies. Being a journalist doesn’t mean not taking sides.
You are often accused of mixing activism and journalism, even if to a degree one can’t really cover the subjects that you do and not be an activist. Until very recently, there have been so few perspectives like yours in French media. For example, one can find a lot of books like yours, written by black and brown people describing their view on society and politics, at a bookstore in the United States. In France, it’s as if there’s a gag rule on openly discussing these subjects.
I have been invited by zero French universities — by the student associations, yes, often prompting an intervention by the administration. Whereas in the United States, I have been invited by several. At the very least I expected something from public radio or something, where I know people — but they were made to understand that it was not possible.
What I say is not even that radical. It’s easy to imagine, for example, a white academic being invited to say something like “we need to abolish the police” or “abolish the state.” These are things that I don’t say. I have the impression that they don’t want young people like me to become aware that they have something to say about society, that they have a political place to occupy.
It’s not just a question of media ostracization. You recount two frightening episodes where you were violently arrested by the police: while covering the undocumented Chronopost worker strike in Alfortville and the eruption of protesters into the Bouffes du Nord theater in January 2020, where Emmanuel Macron was seeing a play. And this was all before the recent laws seeking to enhance police powers and protect them from journalists. Is it becoming harder for you to do your job?
Ah, well that’s clear. At protests, the police do everything they can to prevent us from doing our jobs: they beat us with night sticks, they take our phones, they take our gas masks or goggles, and put us in custody. An investigation revealed that in Paris-area police stations there were photos of my face posted on the walls — as if to say, here’s the guy to hit. I’ve been targeted by the minister of the interior himself on Twitter. This allows the police to draw a line between “good” and “bad” journalists. The police know very well that what they can do against journalists like me, they can’t do against a journalist from [mainstream station] BFMTV.
[While covering the workers in Alfortville], I had my shoulder dislocated by a police officer, leaving me with three weeks of sick leave ordered by my doctor. The case was closed without any proceedings! In fact, I was the one who was investigated for the next two years. I even have the video that shows the arrest from start to finish. The thing is that the policeman knew perfectly well that he would have nothing to answer for: he has the IGPN [police’s internal inspection service], the public prosecutor, and his superiors behind him.
At the Bouffes du Nord theater, I just tweeted a photo showing that the president was there. For that I was arrested, my phone was confiscated, and I was prosecuted for organizing an illegal demonstration and conspiracy to commit violence. If this happened in any other country in the world, Turkey or wherever, everyone would be sounding the alarm. I spent the night in police custody. After a year of proceedings, the judge opened the dossier and admitted that there was nothing at all! But I was prosecuted for a year, did not get my phone back for a year.
I must say that reading your book made me nostalgic. After so much organization and so many popular movements, here we are, a few days away from an election dominated by the anxieties of the French far right. Even if it is possible that Mélenchon makes it to the second round, Macron is in a good position and there’s a trio of candidates to his right. What separates us from the period you describe in the book?
It’s sure that we are at a tipping point. I’ve always been convinced that racism and xenophobia go from the top down, not the other way around. But it’s true that now we are witnessing a major right-wing shift of the political field as a whole.
If you think back to Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in 2017, he at least would talk about police violence, about the problems faced by working-class neighborhoods. He denounced Islamophobia, a militarized laïcité that targets Muslims. Everyone said he was an American-style liberal — a French Justin Trudeau. They said, “At least he’s going to leave the Muslims and Arabs alone.”
Now, I don’t know if he’s an innate conservative or if it’s society as a whole that has changed. But it must be said that he is one of the presidents who has overseen some of the most racist of reform packages, take the immigration law or the anti-separatism law on freedom of association and religion for example. Ministers like Frédérique Vidal or Jean-Michel Blanquer have become megaphones for theories that until recently were only to be found in fascist internet forums — the so-called “Islamo-leftism.” Now, these theories are coming out of the mouths of ministers, from the highest summit of the state!
At the same time, the police as an institution has never faced so much scrutiny. We have never talked so much about the arbitrary nature of the state, of the weapons and techniques used by the police. The police have never been filmed so much. And people who didn’t feel concerned at first have become involved — because we pushed it politically. Because there was an enormous journalistic effort to catalog police violence. They wanted to include in the Global Security Law a ban on filming the police, precisely because the police apparatus was undermined! And the protests against the Global Security Law, or the protests after the first lockdown following the murder of George Floyd brought out a new generation mobilized to defend civil liberties and fight systemic racism. This is also why things are getting harder.
You were a France Insoumise candidate for the legislative elections in 2017, and you remain close to the forces around Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Can you see yourself returning to political life in a more direct way? To think of Taha Bouhafs interrogating Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, in government questions!
That would be something to see. If I were elected, I would be a guy from the projects, without a high school diploma, becoming an MP. That would mean so many things politically: that you can grow up in the projects, be born in Algeria, not finish school, and become an MP. Can you imagine the effect that would have, or the possibilities that this would open up in the heads of people from neighborhoods like mine?
I’m not one of those people who consider politics to be something vulgar. That’s also why I am open about the fact that I support Jean-Luc Mélenchon. We can’t afford another five years under Macron. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for the next glorious revolution. Things are urgent: we don’t have the luxury that previous generations had, who could say that the next ones would do the job. No, now is the time to repair the damage. I have a lot of respect for the far left, for my Trotskyist comrades, etc. — but Macron’s policies have consequences on people like me. I see it concretely.
And even if Mélenchon doesn’t win but comes in second would mean a lot in terms of the political perspectives that might open up. For thirty years, we’ve had either the far right or the liberals. We need to break this narrative.