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Protests in France: thirty years of hatred


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The Conversation

Sarali Gintsburg

Researcher at Institute for Culture and Society

This is the story of a sinking society. While it is sinking, it keeps saying to itself: so far so good, so far so good, so far so good, so far so good. The important thing is not the fall, but the landing.
(The Hate, Mattheu Kassovitz, 1995)

France has been plunged into crisis for almost a week following the death of a Frenchman of Algerian origin, seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk, shot by a policeman. On the morning of June 27, a police patrol stopped a Mercedes for a document check. The passengers and the driver refused to cooperate and the latter stepped on the accelerator. One of the two officers fired and Nakhel, sitting behind the wheel, died on the spot. Then came the commotion. The incident took place in the underprivileged Parisian suburb of Nanterre, which for decades has been densely populated by non-native French citizens.

The mass riots that have gripped France this week have forced the government of the Republic to take some rather drastic measures. Leisure activities were canceled in "dangerous zones" and public transportation was suspended at night. Curfews were also imposed in some communities.

We are tempted to compare what is happening in France with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Indeed, apparently, the status in France is comparable to the one in the United States: the police stop a member of an ethnic minority, this person sample disobeys the law enforcer, the latter abuses the power given to him by the State and, as a consequence, the representative of the ethnic minority dies on the spot. However, the case of France is not so simple. Unlike the United States, the most "problematic" part of its population comes from the Maghreb countries, or more precisely from Algeria. France has a long-standing love-hate relationship with this country, since Algeria fought for independence against French colonization from 1830 to 1962.

France, on the other hand, never treated Algeria as one of its colonies, but as an integral part of the French Republic. Or almost, because this attitude did not extend to the Algerian people and their culture. The massive movement of Algerians to France began after World War II, when the country needed manpower to rebuild its Economics, destroyed by the war. The issue of Maghrebis began to grow rapidly and so did the banlieues or suburban areas where they resided as a whole. This gave rise to the distinctive culture of the beurs, a French pejorative term for people born in Europe whose parents or grandparents are immigrants from the Maghreb. North African natives were soon joined by natives of sub-Saharan Africa, mostly from former French colonies. In the 1990s, the banlieues problem reached significant proportions. But then, it was unthinkable to speak publicly about the problems of the suburbs and the racism that devoured French society.

This taboo was broken by the then very young French director Mathieu Kassovitz and his now iconic film The Hate (1995). It is based on a true story, that of Makome M'Bowole, a seventeen-year-old of Zairean origin who had been shot dead by the police two years earlier. It portrays the lives of three young men from the suburbs: a Jew, a Moroccan and a sub-Saharan African and invited French society to reflect on the fact that hatred is not the answer, but something inherently destructive. "Hate attracts hate," says Hubert, a young man of sub-Saharan origin and one of the main protagonists of the film.

For almost thirty years after the film, the French government tried to remedy the status, but these attempts mainly took the form of investments in infrastructure, not in the integration of immigrants and their children into society. For three generations, the children of the suburbs have lived immersed in a hatred that they seem to feel for everything. In the midst of the protests, Laurent-Franck Liénard, the lawyer of the policeman who shot Nahel, recalled that his client, accused of murder, is in the Paris La Santé prison awaiting trial. And he asked, "The policeman is in jail, what more do the demonstrators want?". On the same speech, the lawyer answered his own rhetorical question, "They don't want justice, they express rage."

There is a great truth behind it, if we look at the targets pursued by the protesters. They are the public buildings that were supposed to serve them and their families, public transport, schools, kindergartens, restaurants and stores. The burned bus station in Aubervilliers (Seine-Saint-Denis) served the same suburbs that always complain about the shortages. It gives the impression that the inhabitants of the suburbs, second or third generation French, express a hatred for everything that is a sign, of "normal" life from the traditional point of view. Their message can be interpreted as: "We don't want your society, we reject this life". This behavior has resonances of the motives and behavior of the young people in Kassovitz's Hate: we hate you, we hate this way of life and we believe that only by hating can problems be solved.

The rioters are not only expressing their anger: these last days in TV talks and government statements we hear expressions like "calming passions" and "finding common ground". It is as if we are not talking about members of the same society, citizens of the same country, but about some foreign army. Moreover, this army - something that surprised the police - is made up of teenagers between 14 and 18 years old, and even younger. That is to say, the division now is not only along the lines of demarcation already exploited by the right and the left ("native French": descendants of immigrants, rich-poor, city-suburbs), but also in ages and generations within the same neighborhood, community, family.

Likewise, this status is being fed from within by politicians who are trying to make some subject profit out of it. For example, leftist Jean-Luc Melénchon called for peace, but nevertheless appealed to the French police watchdogs and demanded justice. And Antoine Léaumant, deputy of the same party, declared that "the demonstrations take the form they want, the anger expressed is legitimate". For his part, the right-wing leader of the Reconquête party, Eric Zemmour (of North African origin, by the way) warned Europe that France is on the brink of civil war.

Will all this lead to significant reorganizations in the French government in the short term deadline? Not likely. The protests that are taking place are quite typical of the French state, where freedom of expression often takes violent forms. In a way, society is used to them and does not consider them at all unacceptable. We must also understand the French authorities: these spontaneous protests (unlike the Yellow Vests Movement) have no leaders, so the authorities, even if they wanted to, have no one to negotiate with. It seems that the French authorities have decided to stick to their usual tactics: stand firm and wait until the rioters' demands are finally compromised by their own behavior. And so far this seems to be the case. However, a society torn apart by such contradictions continues to crumble and no one can predict what the outcome will be.

This article was originally published in original.

The Conversation