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Oppressed French youth demand justice for Nahel!

05 July 2023

By Marc Lasalle, Paris

27 June, Nanterre (a banlieue of Paris): two policemen stop a car, one of them points a gun at close range to the driver shouting, ‘Open or I put a bullet in your head!’. Seconds later, a shot. 17-year-old Nahel M is dead. The official report claims the police acted in self-defence. A video, proving this is a lie, goes viral. Its effect… tens of thousands of young people take to the streets of Nanterre.

In the following nights they flood into the streets right across France, in Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Strasbourg — youth demanding truth and justice, attacking the police and public buildings. Youth demonstrations have taken place outside of France in Brussels, but also in French colonies as far as La Réunion (in the Indian Ocean) and French Guiana.

The reason for the explosion of rage is that this murder, and the police lies about it, are no isolated incident: in 2022, 12 people were killed by police in similar circumstances and in most cases faced no serious investigation, let alone charges. Indeed, a law passed in 2017 authorised them to shoot in cases of ‘refusal to obey’, quickly interpreted by police as the right to kill with impunity. In most cases the official reports, investigations, disciplinary bodies exist only to cover up the truth.

The attitude of the police towards young people of North African descent, like Nahel, is unashamedly racist. The police federations’ joint communiqué declared: ‘Faced with these savage hordes, asking for calm is no longer enough, we must impose it… It is time not for trade union action, but for combat against these vermin.’

President Emmanuel Macron, though he initially denounced the murder as ‘inexcusable’, quickly turned on the ‘rioters’. In fact, he and his predecessors as president, François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, are heavily responsible for these events. They all resorted to an ever more heavily armed police as the solution to the crying social problems of the banlieues — unemployment, poor housing, drugs — and instructed these police to maintain a racist order.

While another law against immigration is in preparation, another occasion to stigmatise immigrants, the Minister of Interior Gerald Darmanin is executing a massive racist repression on the island of Mayotte, a ‘French overseas territory’ off southern Africa, destroying tin shacks and leaving thousands without a roof or threatened with deportation. 

In the banlieues police regularly stop and search and also rough up young people, especially those from ‘racial minorities’, and murders like that of Nahel have caused mass uprisings before. In 2005, there were the tragic deaths of Zyed and Bouna, two teenagers electrocuted trying to escape police. This sparked riots that lasted several weeks. More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement had a very strong echo in France; indeed, the situation in France is quite similar to the urban ghettos of the USA. 

Extreme poverty is concentrated in run-down housing projects, with high rates of unemployment or low-paid, precarious jobs. Nahel, no criminal, was a fast-food courier, also trying to complete training as an electrician. These areas are short of basic services, including public transport. And though Egalité is written in shining letters on all public building, it is a sick joke. Indeed ‘republican equality’ is usually quoted in refusing ‘affirmative action’ or even logging the levels of inequality afflicting the children and grandchildren of those who originally came from France’s colonial empire.

People question why schools are also a target of the riots. This is because they are also often seen as part of the racist system; recent campaigns in the schools, launched by the government but backed by some of the teachers, on the grounds of ‘republican secularism’, continue to stigmatise and oppress religious minorities, especially Muslims, because of their dress.

Macron’s response thus far has been to mobilise ever more police: more than 40,000 policemen every night, including special intervention units, with armoured vehicles and helicopters. However, the police unions demand even more arms, more special laws. They claim to be at war with ‘savage hordes’, and that if they don’t get their way the next step will be ‘resistance’, i.e. mutiny.

They are echoing the positions of the more reactionary forces like Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, demanding curfews and the declaration of a state of emergency. According to RN, the riots are the result of ‘40 years of crazy immigration policy’ – despite the fact that most of the youth on the streets, as well as their parents, are French citizens. The arch-reactionary racist journalist Eric Zemmour, a presidential candidate in 2022, describes it as the beginning of a civil war, accompanied by an ethnic and racial war, and calls for ‘savage repression’ by the state.

On the populist left Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of France Insoumise, calls for ‘an in-depth reform of the national police, that must be a better trained republican police, without racism’. This is of course a utopian illusion, as is his whole project of a strong republican state charged with implementing social reforms. Never is the class character of the imperialist state clearer than when its repressive forces defend law and order against all opposing it, whether it be workers on strike, the gilets jaunes, ecology activists or the youth of the banlieues.

The far left Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in sharp contrast issued a principled defence of the protesters and showed a correct understanding of the role of the police.

‘The police are not there to protect us. This institution, which serves only to maintain the power of the rich and the bosses, is by nature hostile to our class and will never serve our interests. This police force is racist, it applies an anti-immigrant policy and regularly uses violence against young people of immigrant origin! This institution, which murders in working class neighbourhoods and spearheads state racism, is the same one that represses demonstrators who oppose the government’s policies.

‘This police force exists only to maintain order for Darmanin, Macron and the employers who sponsor them. We urgently need to disarm them and demand the truth about their crimes, but more than that, it’s high time to do away with this institution and this capitalist society that brings nothing but violence and misery for the vast majority of the population.’ (Communiqué, 27 June)

It is indeed high time that the workers movement, from the rank and file to the trade union federations and the left parties, took action in solidarity with the youth, defending them against mass arrests and brutalities. They should denounce the police violence and demand an immediate end to the generalised repression, the release of the hundreds arrested, and the repeal of all the repressive and racist laws. With the battle over pensions entering a precarious pause, the president and its government are still the object of mass, justified anger. Joining forces with the youth would also allow the workers’ movement to denounce the shameful lies of the far right and their racist propaganda.

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