Troubled republic must search its revolutionary soul

Published by The i paper (3rd July, 2023)

In 2009, Africa Express, the collaborative music project I co-founded, held a show in the centre of Paris. So as dusk fell, I stood beside a stage in front of the city hall watching Oumou Sangaré, the queen of West African music, play a stunning set to the delight of her fans, many with heritage from places such as Mali, Senegal and Cameroon. Stretching far into the distance in the streets from the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville was a sea of happy faces and dancing bodies. It was a magical moment: the beauty of the scenery and sounds melding with the sheer joy and spirit of unity that music at its best can deliver.

Then the man standing beside me, a famous musician originally from Algeria, told me the sight had brought tears to his eye. Later, he explained to me the realities of life for many migrants and their children in the city with frequent harassment and overt racism from police. Others joined in the discussion, throwing in their own experiences. Their loathing of les flics (the cops) was deep and driven by experience.

That free concert was part of a festival run by the Fnac retail chain. This year, the event’s final shows were cancelled after riots following the slaying by police of a 17-year-old boy. Curfews have been imposed, public transport curtailed. Thousands of paramilitary-style forces have poured onto streets across the country, some firing tear gas and stun grenades, in response to the fast-spreading chaos in a bid to restore order amid disturbing scenes of burning cars and looted shops. Police stations, schools, town halls, libraries, even a mayor’s home, have been targeted in the latest explosive challenge to President Emmanuel Macron.

France is a place familiar with street protest for all its success, prosperity and often-enviable way of life. Macron has already endured the fury of rural and provincial folk with the yellow jacket demonstrations, then months of protest and national strikes over pension reforms that led to cancellation of a state visit by King Charles. The anger of millions of citizens is evident at elections with the frightening strength of both the racist far-right and revolutionary left, as is the presence of anarchist groups and hooligans who, like the political extremists, rush to exploit legitimate grievances and protests.

Such is the paradox of France: seething resentments beneath the surface of what seems such an attractive society to many outsiders. Yet perhaps the most corrosive rift is the one exposed again in recent days, the invisible fence that lies between the banlieues – low income, multi-ethnic, high-rise neighbourhoods that ring many French cities – and the wealthier, much whiter, inner cities. This fissure, draped in layers of mistrust and misunderstanding built up over decades, provoked use of the loaded word “war”, heard again on both sides of the political spectrum last week. Analysts point out many of the latest attacks targeted symbols of the state such as those police stations and town halls.

Perhaps these latest riots will fizzle out. Other Western nations, including our own, have seen similar events in the struggle to adapt to rapid cultural and demographic transformation. Yet France seems slow to change and tackle the institutional racism that means young men with Black or Arab heritage are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than white counterparts. Since the loosening of police rules on firearms six years ago, there has been a surge in fatal shootings with 17 over the past 18 months in traffic checks. Most victims are thought to have migrant backgrounds.

Riots in Britain and the US led to a focus on racism and police reform, however inadequate. Yet like his predecessors, Macron has failed to reform the police or rein in unions given outsized control over their operations. Three years ago his interior minister proposed to ban use of chokeholds during arrests and introduce a zero tolerance policy for racism – but after protests from union chiefs, he was hastily replaced by the current and far more conservative incumbent.

Despite evidence the experienced officer in the latest shooting lied in his initial report on the incident, the two main unions responded to the riots with inflammatory statements about being “at war” with “savage hordes of vermin”.

Many of these issues have been bubbling away for decades, but France pretends they barely exist. Bear in mind the state still refuses to fully face up to the police massacre of perhaps 300 Algerians six decades ago, many of their bodies floating down the River Seine after drowning. This is a nation where two-thirds of citizens fear a “great replacement” – the conspiracy theory promoted by failed presidential candidate Eric Zemmour that white Americans and Europeans are being actively “replaced” by non-white migrants – according to a 2021 poll. A friend travelling on the metro last week told of witnessing a volley of abuse directed at a group of young Arabs. After the middle-class perpetrator left the carriage, they told him it happened all the time.

A concert can bring brief joy but France needs to examine its soul. It pretends to be colourblind – even prohibiting collection of data exposing racial, ethnic or religious origins – but this merely means there is insufficient evidence to challenge systemic abuse.

Not all police are racist, of course. Many banlieues are tormented by gangs. And yes, our own nation still has a long way to travel on these issues. But these riots, another outburst of destructive nihilism, reflect the resentments of citizens who fear they will never be fully embraced and treated fairly – for all that talk of liberty, equality and fraternity. Will France let the embers sparking the protests keep burning even after the latest flames and riots are extinguished?

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