By: Sanoop Suresh, Research Analyst, GSDN
Once more, France embarks on a movement, but this time the demand is not the reversal of pension reforms or the control of the rising cost of living, but rather the elimination of institutionalized racism. Racism is not a new phenomenon in France. In fact, the current events are a part and parcel of the normal lives of many minorities in the nation. The inception of the current riots in France is because an African Muslim teenager was shot to death by a police officer. This triggered a lot of motions across the country which called out the blatant racism existent in the nation. This event has been linked to the 2005 riots wherein two teenage boys of minority ethnicity died after hiding from police. These riots and their history gave insight into the background of racism in the nation.
Why France Protests?
On June 27, 2023, a police officer shot and killed 17-year-old Nahel M., in the chest while attempting to stop his rental car that had broken many traffic rules. Two police officers are seen attempting to stop the car in a video that has gone viral on social media and has been verified by the French news agency AFP. One of the police officers points his gun at the driver through the window and fires at close range when it appears that the driver is still trying to move the car. Before colliding, the automobile traveled a few meters. After the teenager’s death, a fight between frustrated citizens and the police broke out, leading to the deployment of 45,000 police when the demonstrations turned violent and the protesters vandalized various public facilities. Nahel came from the underprivileged neighborhoods of France and had Algerian descent. The fatal police shot was described as “unforgivable” and “inexplicable” by the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, as an attempt to ease the tension. The demonstrators demand that the government take action against the police since they stand accused of enjoying a “culture of impunity” and abuse. According to reports, over 3,600 people have been detained at an average age of 17 in France. Even though the violence receded over time, it left numerous lawsuits for vandalism and more than 800 law enforcement officers injured. These events also brought back concerns about the methods used by the police, who frequently target residents in low-income areas, especially minorities.
Is French Police Racist?
Owing to memories which long back to the Second World War, since the people officially designated as Jews were sent into concentration camps, the French government never collected data regarding race, ethnicity, and religion. Still, the racial biases in French institutions have often been pointed out by various agencies. The French Police is no exception in practicing institutionalized racism and often bears the blame for failing in their duty to provide impartial treatment.
A black music producer named Michael Zeckler was severely beaten by four police officers in Paris in November 2020, and the video of this incident gained widespread attention. This video came amidst the debates over a law which prohibits recording active police on duty and, consequently, the law was nullified by the top court due to concern over the accountability of police practices. According to research, people from low-income minority groups frequently have similar experiences. A 2017 study by the independent administrative body “Defender of Rights” reveals that police identity checks mostly target young men from visible minorities, supporting the notion that such checks are based on race. “80% of people corresponding to the profile of ‘young man perceived as black or Arab’ declare that they have been checked in the last five years,” according to a representative sampling of more than 5,000 people. On the other hand, only 16% of other respondents declare that they have been checked in identity check practice. Even while data indicate a bias inside the French police institution, a closer examination will provide more light on the changes in French politics brought on by the emergence of far-right political groups.
How Color Blind is France?
Even though France describes itself as a color-blind society, its politics is becoming less inclusive as a result of rising Far-Right political participation. There has been an increase in anti-immigrant attitudes across French society, and the far-right political groups frequently try to gain electoral support by appealing to the resentment of ordinary citizens towards the influx of immigrants. In November 2022, Grégoire de Fournas, a French lawmaker from the far-right National Rally party, was suspended from the assembly for yelling “Go back to Africa” during a speech by Carlos Martens Bilongo, a black colleague, about the difficulties faced by migrants while aboard a rescue boat operated by the non-profit organization SOS Méditerranée. Similar to this, Marine Le Pen, the leader of National Rally’s parliamentary party, gained 41.5% of the vote in the second round of the 2022 presidential elections despite being accused of supporting anti-immigrant, anti-multiculturalist, and anti-Islamic policies, even though she was eventually defeated by Macron.
When we look at two similar fundraisers that are taking place at the same time, we can see the changes in French society. A fundraiser for Nahel M.’s family reportedly brought in more than 200,000 euros from about 100,000 contributions. On the other hand, another fund-raiser for the family of the 38-year-old police officer who shot Nahel is taking place in France. It was established by Jean Messiha, an independent far-right populist and former Marine La Pen aide. In this, more than 1 million Euros has been raised from nearly 52,000 contributors. The considerable difference between these two fundraisers provides two important insights. Firstly, there is a growing indifference in French society regarding the plight of immigrants and ethnic minorities. Secondly, it highlights the polarization of wealth, and how it plays out in the debate over the elimination of systematic racism.
How Equal Is France?
According to a study by the Centre for Economic Policy Research, there was a noticeable shift in who benefited from French economic strategies between 1950 and 2014. The data shows that between 1950 and 1983, the bulk of the population benefited from growth. However, after 1983, such gains have only been experienced by the top percentile. According to multiple reports, the disparity in the distribution of wealth in French society is at an all-time high and the Russia-Ukraine war makes the situation worse for the economically deprived suburbs in France.
The death of Nahel M. became the tipping point for the long-standing resentment over institutional apathy as there was an increasing sense of disillusionment among the socioeconomic strata. One of France’s poorest regions economically is the Paris suburbs, where the riots have been taking place. The feeling of marginalization felt by France’s ethnic minority fueled the violence. The social exclusion of racial and ethnic minorities in France is characterized by high unemployment, low educational achievement, and poverty compared to the majority of the French population.
Because the major political parties disregarded their demands for equitable economic distribution and inclusive policies, voting for smaller parties or staying home during elections became the norm in the suburbs. These communities find it challenging to voice their complaints and requests to the current political structures due to their perception of political disenfranchisement. Racial tensions and persistent social and economic inequalities were once more brought to light in French debate, but there were fewer prospects for effective remedies.
Will France Change?
The ethnic minority groups who belong to the low- income suburbs of France face three significant risks. Firstly, there is a growing racial apathy in French institutions and society, which is paired with the emergence of Far-Right ideas. Secondly, there is the financial hardship brought on by the political system’s failure to adopt inclusive policies. Finally, the lack of representation in France’s political institutions as a result of their incapacity to change into a political pressure group. Unsurprisingly, all of these issues were discussed in French politics, but they have never successfully changed the country’s political landscape.
Only the development and use of an open and impartial political system can restore trust in these institutions and the primary duty of French administration. To accomplish this, society and the government must consider the needs of ethnic and economic minorities when formulating policies and guarantee that everyone is treated fairly. Similarly, the political system has a duty to treat all segments of society equally from the institutions that have legal authority and are held accountable for their deeds. The assimilation of many socio-economic groups in mainstream society is hindered by the polarization of anti-immigrant and anti-multiculturalist views, and it is questionable how well French politics would perform in an altering political environment. Time alone has the answer to that query.