By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor
All the parties of the right in France stand united in supporting increasing the rate of exploitation of the working class, i.e. austerity. Racism is the primary weapon deployed by the right to divide the resistance to that attack. Increasing authoritarianism underpins these attacks.
A carnival of reaction and a torrent of racism followed the recent killing of Nahel Merzouk by the police in Paris. Calls for justice and the condemnation of police violence have been denounced as anti-republican by the parties of the right.
Under the banner of law and order, the Macronists, the LR conservatives and Le Pen’s RN have attempted to exploit Nahel’s death and the righteous revolt of the quartiers populaires to try to destroy the left, particularly its leading force, La France Insoumise (LFI).
The cry of ‘no justice, no peace’ has been cynically misrepresented by the right as a call for violence. As a leading member of the LFI, Mathilde Panot put it, ‘How many Nahel’s have not been filmed’ and ‘calm cannot be decreed, it must be built.’
The UN view that “This is a moment for the country to seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement” was treated with contempt by right-wing politicians and media.
Law and order
In the wake of Nahel’s killing, both authoritarianism and racism are surging under the leadership of President Macron.
The president could not even bring himself to speak to Nahel’s family in person: a step which would have sent a message of respect and a strong desire for justice and peace. But Macron did find time to visit police officers and give them his support. He also pressed parents to discipline their children and social media to censor the voices of the suburbs. His government has also banned protests against police violence.
All the parties of the right compete to be the toughest on law and order, including a renewed clamour for families of those convicted to face collective punishment by losing their social benefits and rights to social housing. Not to be outdone, the RN has spread the lie that the quartiers populaires get preferential funding and children should face criminal proceedings as adults. Proposals to deport people have gone hand in hand with claims that many people in the banlieues are not really French.
The carnival of reaction saw a new low in the grotesque spectacle of an online collection of over 1.6 million euros for the police officer filmed shooting Nahel at point-blank range.
The demand by the right for law and order is a call for racist repression and the denial of routes to social and economic reform to improve the lives of the people in the banlieues, i.e. to continue segregation of communities simply asking for equality.
Since the recent revolt, Macron and his government have facilitated the police to become even bolder in asserting their ‘right’ to use violence against the people with impunity.
The shouts for ‘law and order’ by the entire right did not include the government condemning threats made by the largest police union, which declared that “now is not the time for union action but for combat” and “the police are at war because we are at war.” Neither the president nor other leaders of the right have spoken out against the police union describing the protesters as “vermin” and “savage hordes”. The statements by the police unions are not a surprise, given that in opinion polls last year, a majority of the police said they intended to vote for Le Pen.
In a marked escalation, the police have started to carry out their threat to act with or without government authorisation. In protest at a Marseilles police officer being remanded in custody after a passer-by was hit in the head by a plastic bullet and then beaten up, local police have taken sick leave en masse and worked to rule.
Subsequent comments by the head of France’s national police service have been met with widespread outrage. Frederic Veaux said that police officers, before a trial, should not be in prison even if they face grave accusations arising from their conduct at work. The Paris police chief has supported Veaux. These comments represent unprecedented insubordination by police chiefs, according to Sebastian Roché, director of research at the CNRS public research institute.
The government has not condemned the police chiefs. On the contrary, some suggest that Interior Minister Darmanin has given them the ‘green light’ after he expressed his confidence in the head of police.
Institutionalised racism and discrimination
The root of institutional racism in France lies in French colonialism and, in its offspring, neo-colonialism. Even after formal independence, France has maintained its exploitation of Africa through its unfair trading policy of Françafrique and its many military interventions to subordinate states to the interests of French capitalism.
The oppressive conditions of the suburbs are a direct product of French colonialism. After WW2, the quartiers populaires were designed as dormitory suburbs to supply a reserve army of labour: a section of the working class that has been hit especially hard by austerity and economic stagnation. The quartiers have been largely without shops and public services; public transport is minimal, and schools are heavily underfunded. Moreover, the people in the suburbs have been routinely subjected to racism, discrimination, marginalisation, and police violence. The FT reports, “There were 26 fatal police shootings in France in 2022 ……and in the past 18 months French police have shot dead 17 people during traffic stops such as that which sparked the latest riots.” In Paris, a black or Arab person is twenty times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person.
Since being elected in 2017, Macron’s policy towards the quartiers populaires has been dominated by cuts and more cuts. Le Monde reported in May this year the call by mayors in poor neighbourhoods for an emergency plan to tackle food insecurity, high energy prices and to fund urban renewal, as their districts were in danger of “asphyxiation”. Macron has ignored the plea.
The racist language of leading politicians directed at the banlieues is nothing new. Two days before the death of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore in 2005, former president Sarkozy had talked about the “scum” in the quartiers populaires and a few months before, he said they should be dealt with by a Karcher (high-pressure cleaner). In the mass revolt of 2023, the youth of the banlieues have been described by Bruno Retailleau, the leader of the LR in the Senate, in an even more overtly racist manner, as reverting to their “ethnic origins.”
The heroic struggle of Les Sans Papiers and the family justice campaigns have exposed how black people in France do not have full rights as citizens. The refusal of the French state to acknowledge or record institutional racism is not unique, and its attempt to distort secularism or laïcite against Muslims adds an extra element of racist oppression. Muslims are racialised as the other. Politicians of the right have legitimised decades of Islamophobia, sadly echoed by parts of the left.
Islamophobia is used as a deliberate divisive and diversionary tactic to persuade people to focus less on the government policies causing the declining standard of living. Recently, school students have been threatened with disciplinary measures for taking time off school to celebrate Eid. Muslim women have been banned from wearing the hijab when playing football. As Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise recently remarked, it is not acceptable that secularism is abused to enforce compulsory atheism.
Given the 2024 Olympics is in Paris, the increasing racism of the French government and the right will come under greater international scrutiny in the coming months.