The French Riots Are a Result of Miserable Conditions in French Society

Riots like the ones France is seeing after the police killing of a teenager don't happen as a result of petty criminality. They only happen as a result of widespread anger at murderous policing, racial inequality, and social deprivation.

A man walks among clouds of tear gas in the Planoise district of Besançon, France, during riots sparked by the police killing of a teenager on July 1, 2023. (Toufik-de-Planoise / Wikimedia Commons)

As we write, stories of the riots in France are being broadcast across the world, with talk of businesses being looted and everything from town halls tolibraries going up in smoke at the hands of rioters.

These riots are popular revolts — revolts against police brutality, against the feeling of being treated as second-rate citizens, against the cost-of-living crisis in France. They began on June 27, when seventeen-year-old Nahel M was executed by a police officer while trying to escape a roadside police check in one of Nanterre’s working-class neighborhoods.

This murder was not an isolated one; police killings have been soaring since former president François Hollande passed a 2017 bill allowing police officers to use firearms in case of civilian non-compliance. Since then, the number of victims of police brutality has grown year after year.

But if anger was sparked by this particular killing, it has been fueled by years of police abuse. A 2017 study in France showed that if you were perceived as an Arab or black male, you were twenty times more likely to be subject to a police check than the rest of the population. And the working-class neighborhoods where these revolts are taking place are severely under-resourced in terms of public services, with unemployment rates at 16-20 percent against a national average of 7-8 percent.

As of today, 2,300 arrests have been made, and their profiles show some similarities: many of them are teenagers. Very few have criminal records and they tend to be between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. On certain evenings, the average age of the arrested rioters is just seventeen.

But so far, political leaders from across the spectrum have refused to grasp the weight of the problem, resorting to false accusations. Portions of the government and the right-wing party Les Républicains, for instance, accuse left-wing La France Insoumise of sowing chaos in the country for seeking political solutions to the riots and refusing to join the blanket condemnation. Every time social conflict intensifies, this same charge is directed against the Left from the right wing and the Macronists.

At the highest level, Emmanuel Macron’s response has been unsurprisingly authoritarian and brutal. More than 45,000 police have been mobilized throughout the country to deal with the revolts. In a speech with interior minister Gérald Darmanin and prime minister Elisabeth Borne, Macron pledged that these revolts would be swiftly dealt with and insisted that social media and video games were partially to blame for the conduct of teenage rioters. Macron also called for parents to take responsibility and look after their children in the evenings. Justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said parents should “hold their kids” and threatened them with prosection if they did not.

Last Friday, the UN called for France to “seriously tackle the profound problems of racism among law enforcement.” France answered that “any accusation of systemic racism or discrimination by law enforcement in France” was “totally unfounded.” No political announcement or political solution to end these revolts has been proposed by the government.

The far right has called for a state of emergency to be declared, with some far-right politicians labelling the moment as a “civilizational war,” arguing that the revolts were led by descendants of immigrants. They called for the government to let people put order back in the streets if the government would not; while Macron attacks the radical left, fascist militias armed with baseball bats have been spotted in the cities of Angers and Lorien, where they have been helping police make arrests, and in Lyon, where fifty fascists marched through the streets chanting “this is our country.” The police and fascists are singing from similar hymn sheets; in recent days, two police unions have issued statements explaining that police forces were “at war’ with “pests” and “savages.”

What is frightening is that almost no political force is treating this revolt politically. The only answer the political class seems to give is a repressive one. The lone political party attempting to tackle the situation politically is La France Insoumise, whose parliamentary group has proposed solutions to end the crises generating these revolts. The first demand is to repeal the 2017 “permit to kill” bill, which allowed police officers to kill the young Nahel, as well as calling for a “truth and justice” commission on serious police violence and a mass investment plan for working-class neighborhoods.

Here, the radical left is proposing an “emergency plan to overcome the crisis.” This plan involves placing the revolt within the political realm: the revolts are not the result of failing parents, social networks, or Snapchat, but rather a total political crisis. The causes of the crisis are longstanding and need to be seriously addressed.

In this regard, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has said on the LCI television channel that “the question for a politician is not to call for calm or strike poses. It is to build calm. And for that, it is necessary to rationally and concretely solve the problems at hand.” During the previous presidential elections, the movement already called for the restructuring of the IGPN (General Inspectorate of the National Police), the dissolution of the BAC (Anti-Crime Brigade), and the establishment of a republican police force free from racism. They also advocated for adopting a significant code of ethics, implementing new measures to combat racial profiling and an improved police training program. This would involve extending the duration of police training and modifying its content, such as by introducing sociology courses.

This crisis reflects the erosion of the situation in France. With no action being taken against the dynamics of racial oppression and segregation that are poisoning French society, the execution of young Nahel acted as an explosive trigger. There is an urgent need for political leaders to overhaul police institutions completely and to ensure that the “Republican promise” — of higher education, access to employment, and so on — no longer stops at the doors of disadvantaged neighborhoods.