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France riots: Why the streets are burning again

Decades of repressive and illiberal policies have pushed the most vulnerable citizens to their breaking point
Firefighters put out the flames on a vehicle set ablaze during protests in Tours, France, on 30 June 2023, days after a 17-year-old was killed by police (AFP)

Though history never repeats itself even as farce, it often seems to, as is currently the case in France.

Riots have spread since the police killing of a French teenager of North African descent in the banlieue of Nanterre, after he allegedly refused to comply with an order to stop his car. According to video evidence and witness testimony, an officer threatened to shoot the youth "in the head" before firing his gun when the car took off.

This feels like a replay of the 2005 deaths of two young teens chased by police in another Parisian banlieue, which led to weeks of nationwide riots and a state of emergency imposed by the government. 

The Nanterre incident, in which one officer has been charged with voluntary homicide, also recalls the 2016 death in police custody of 24-year-old French African Adama Traore, who subsequently became a symbol of the brutality and racism of the French police - and more broadly of the French state - against ethnic minorities. His death launched a wave of protests and activism for racial justice

In recent days, French citizens have again been subjected to a problem whose roots can be found in its colonial history: an obsessive fixation on the visibility not of "religion in the public space", as it is sometimes described, but of one religion only: Islam, whose practitioners are subjected to an ever-worsening differential and unequal treatment, securitisation policies and state persecution, in full violation of France's professed values and constitutional guarantees. 

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These guarantees include equality before the law, freedom of religion and the principle of laicite, which obligates the state to treat all religions on a strictly equal footing. But who could possibly claim with a straight face that the French state treats Islam and its practitioners the same as Christians or Jews? 

Having previously banned "religious symbols" (read: Islamic ones) from public schools and burqas from public places, France is now in the midst of a new witch hunt against students wearing abayas in schools, on the grounds that they are "religious symbols" and thus fall under the 2004 law.

This has led to the usual hysterical accusations from the far right that these young girls are, if not "Islamist agents" seeking to topple the republic, at least "manipulated" by such groups, and that the Macron government is too soft on "Islamism".

Targeting Muslims

Competing for attention and headlines in the French news media, a new national debate around (and against) women's Islamic dress is again targeting "visible Muslims", vilified as threats, "Islamists" or "radicals". The media narrative is using the same old rhetoric (such as the need to "protect French laicite" and to fight against "political Islam"), and it continues to have deleterious effects on Muslims.

Is the French Republic truly so weak that a few hundred school teens wearing long dresses, amid millions of other French students, somehow represent an existential threat to the nation - and if we don't tackle this issue, "the Islamists will win" and we will soon be living in an Islamic-State-style caliphate?

This new campaign is even more outrageous, given that the abaya has no specific religious meaning and is often a simple fashion choice allowing girls to distinguish themselves from their peers, perhaps out of rebellion against mainstream western culture. Prominent French imams, highly respected theologians and the French Council of the Muslim Faith (the semi-official representative institution of Muslims in France) have made it clear that the abaya is not a religious sign but a cultural choice.

Liberty, equality and fraternity... have become increasingly vacuous words for Muslims and other minorities

At the same time, another recent "controversy" has focused on female football players, who have been protesting against the French Football Federation's ban on headscarves. They, too, have regularly been accused by the dominant media of being dangerous, subversive "Islamists" at war with the republic. 

All these interrelated events - the Nanterre killing, the banlieue riots, and the ongoing quest to demonise Islam - are symptoms of the deep structural problems that the French government, mainstream media, and dominant culture have developed with "post-colonial" minorities in general, and in particular the largely disenfranchised and segregated populations in France's banlieues.

Instead of developing inclusive policies and encouraging an open culture more congruent with the dramatic societal transformations of France in the postwar era, the country is doing the opposite: excluding, stigmatising, vilifying, repressing and discriminating against people and groups who only want to be treated equally. This includes the right not to get unjustifiably killed by police, and not to be summoned to choose between sport and education, or freedom of religion and conscience.

In particular, the government's response to the Nanterre killing and ensuing riots - zealously echoed by the mainstream media in their "analysis" of these events - has been at its essence repressive, aiming solely to "restore order". None of the root causes of the protests is being addressed.

Police brutality

Most shockingly, the Macron government continues to refuse to recognise France's deep police brutality problem, the systemic racism that plagues its "security" forces, and institutional Islamophobia, however well documented these phenomena have been by scholars, activists, local associations, human rights groups and inhabitants of marginalised neighbourhoods. 

Last week, France was officially condemned twice in one day over police racism, brutality and excessive force. The United Nations human rights office urged France to address "deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement". The same day, the International Trade Union Confederation severely condemned France for "police brutality", "blind arrests" and repeated violations of workers' rights.

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Yet against all evidence - which includes the shocking declarations of France's own police forces, whose fascistic elements have openly threatened to violently turn against the government itself - Macron and his government are continuing to ignore and deny. 

On the UN condemnation, it merely declared that "any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force in France is totally unfounded", as it always does in such cases, which have become routine. This suggests the Macron government is now so weak and powerless that its own police forces can openly and publicly threaten it with insurrection and violence, and get away with it.

What we have here, in such systematic blindness, denial and powerlessness, is not a repetition of history, but a country both unwilling and unable to even recognise, much less address, the root causes of recent events so that one day it may live up to its high ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

In the meantime, these have become increasingly vacuous words for Muslims and other minorities - and this is why the French streets are once again on fire.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Dr Alain Gabon is Associate Professor of French Studies and chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA. He has written and lectured widely in the US, Europe and beyond on contemporary French culture, politics, literature and the arts and more recently on Islam and Muslims. His works have been published in several countries in academic journals, think tanks, and mainstream and specialized media such as Saphirnews, Milestones. Commentaries on the Islamic World, and Les Cahiers de l'Islam. His recent essay entitled “The Twin Myths of the Western ‘Jihadist Threat’ and ‘Islamic Radicalisation ‘” is available in French and English on the site of the UK Cordoba Foundation.
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