July 10, 2023


The Roots of France's RiotsYears of systemic discrimination made the recent violent protests all but inevitable (Chahrazade Douah, 7/10/23, New/Lines)

I spoke to dozens of young men to make sense of the past 10 days. They will be referred to only by their first names, as revealing their full identities could lead to their losing their jobs or being subjected to harassment. They come from the outskirts of Paris, the much-discussed banlieues, and the notorious northern neighborhoods of Marseille, as well as from smaller towns like Mulhouse, a former industrial powerhouse that has attracted immigrants of all backgrounds. They were all born in France and are French citizens, but express a sense of alienation: They know their ethnic background has informed their experience with the police. Some are as young as 12. All felt the same mixture of shock, sadness, anger and fear when they learned of Nahel's death.

Once the initial shock settled, none of them was surprised. "I simply thought, one more murder at the hands of the police that will go unseen. Then the video came out and we all saw and we all had proof," says Qais, 18, from Marseille. Moments after seeing the video, he told his friend on their Snapchat group, "I'm going down; who's coming along?" At first, they wandered around without any goal, he told New Lines. Then they started to break and burn down anything they could find.

"We know it is the only way to get heard, the only way the media will talk about us, our anger. And don't be mistaken, we weren't just Arabs and Black kids; there were many others with us," he said. In Mulhouse, in eastern France, young men shared the same conclusions. "It's our revolt," Mehdi said. "And if nothing changes, we will carry on. We have no other way. We are fed up."

For these young men, Nahel's death was the final straw. They all tell the same stories of racial profiling and daily altercations with police. Djiguiba, a 16-year-old boy of Guinean and Ethiopian descent from Paris, is already accustomed to frequent police checks. "I am often the only Black kid in my group of friends, so the police will check me first and more often. Sometimes they even ask my friends questions like 'How do you know him?' or 'Are you sure you know him?'"

Qais said he lives through the same daily experiences in Marseille.

"We get stopped every time we go to the city center, as if it wasn't our city," he said. "We just walk around and get stopped. I can tell you they never stop those they call 'the French.'"

Throughout our discussion, Qais would often use this expression to signal that he is not perceived as really French and is not treated the way someone perceived as French would be treated.

"Some are polite but some won't hesitate to call you 'bamboula' or 'tajine.'" The Defenseur des Droits, the government authority responsible for the safeguarding of human rights in France, has pointed out the prevalence and illegality of racial profiling, yet few if any measures have been taken to address the issue.

Posted by at July 10, 2023 12:00 AM