Opinion – France’s volatile riots: A deep dive into complex issues

Asif Arif, Attorney admitted to Paris and California Bar

Many of us have witnessed – with despair and fear – the burning of monuments, places of worship, commercial premises, houses, and cars in Paris; particularly in the suburban areas of France. While shocking to observe, this situation is not new, as France previously encountered similar riots, albeit with less intensity, in 2005. During that year, two young children named Zyed and Bouna, who were being chased by police officers, ran into an electrical complex and tragically died there. This event, which took place in Clichy-sous-Bois, rapidly sparked anger among the population and eventually led to riots. The intensity of the 2005 riots escalated further when police officers, while intervening in a suburb, used a lethal product against the Bilal Mosque.

This situation elicited a mixed range of emotions within the populace. Firstly, French citizens were fed up with the violence in the streets. Concurrently, they also felt the need for the government to address the underlying issues in the suburban areas of France by promoting employment opportunities and making substantial investments in schools. In 2005, the government’s response was more cohesive than it is today. When Jacques Chirac decided to address the French people, he emphasised that even those who engage in violence in the streets are the children of our Republic, giving his speech a sense of national unity.

However, the current approach of the Macron government appears to be much more repressive. Issues of police brutality have been raised in France for many years, with cases such as Adama Traoré and Michel Zecler among the numerous complaints filed against the French police.

Even the United Nations has called on France to address the issue of systemic racism within the police. (UN rights office calls on France to address ‘deep issues’ of racism in policing, 30 June 2023, news.un.org) However, President Macron’s government is hesitant to address these issues due to the strong police union in France. President Macron is also aware that having police officers who do not believe in their main employer can further exacerbate divisions. Nevertheless, his attempt to strike a balanced position has failed, as police officers consistently hold more power in the relationship.

The current riots have unique features compared to those in 2005. Firstly, most of the rioters are between 12 and 18 years old, making them very young. Secondly, the use of social media, specifically Snapchat, is a prominent feature and has compelled the Justice Minister to address the issue by stating that all saved Snapchat clips will be traced back to their owners, who may face severe punishment.

The current incident occurred in Nanterre, one of the closest cities to Paris. Nahel was driving a yellow car with a Polish number plate. Two police officers noticed the foreign number plate and decided to request a pull-over. Initially, Nahel did not comply with the police officer’s orders and attempted to flee. Eventually, Nahel pulled over, but when the police officers requested that he turn off the vehicle, he refused, and the vehicle started to move slightly forward. It was at this point that one of the officers shot him dead. The same day, all the suburban areas were engulfed in fire, and riots erupted throughout the country.

The role of social media in the riots

The use of social media has played a significant role in the current riots. The youth – who are upset and engage in confrontations with the police – also film and record these incidents using Snapchat. The symbolism of social media usage is of utmost importance, as it highlights what the youth perceive to be valuable in our society obsessed with sensationalism and controversy. These young individuals believe that violent or sexual content on the internet has a higher likelihood of being seen and shared compared to any other intellectual content.

In fact, this issue reflects a fundamental problem in our society. The youth in these neighbourhoods witness their parents working long hours for meagre salaries, while others make 40,000 euros on Instagram by showcasing violent content or their bodies. These disturbing tendencies, combined with the lack of employment opportunities due to their origins, play a significant role in understanding these riots.

Video footage is also crucial because many cases of abuse would be forgotten without it. Many rioters argue that if there were no videos showing what the police officers did to Nahel, the officer’s version of events would likely be the commonly believed narrative. Therefore, filming serves as a demand for truth and justice. If justice cannot be provided solely through police officers’ statements, at least the videos serve as evidence to support their complaints.

The colonial rhetoric

Another theory put forth by intellectuals in the media is related to France’s colonial history. Although I do not believe this theory to be accurate, I will present it to provide a comprehensive overview of the current situation in France. Before Algeria gained independence, the French colonial police were known for their brutality, repression, and use of torture against indigenous people. Some argue that these historical associations have led the police to disproportionately target North African individuals due to deep-rooted cultural prejudices.

Supporters of this theory denounce systemic racism within the police force and seek to raise these issues on an international level. They point to the United Nations’ statement as confirmation of the widespread racism within the French police force. In recent months, leaked recordings have surfaced in which police officers insult and discriminate against North African people.

Repressive response from the French government

The political response to the riots has been to enhance the repressive capabilities of the French police. The Justice Minister has requested the tracking of every social media account to apprehend and arrest the account owners. The Deputy Minister, in charge of the police, categorically denied the presence of racism in the police, stating that the United Nations’ statement goes too far. Emmanuel Macron declared the killing of Nahel to be unacceptable but also attributed the violence and riots to parents who fail to take care of their children after a certain time.

While this statement is accurate in that parents are vicariously responsible for their children and sanctions exist in the French Penal Code, other parents have posted video messages stating that these children are no longer theirs. They argue that because the government has substantially restricted their “right of correction” towards their children, parents are not allowed to educate or discipline them. If they do so and the child complains to social services, their child will be taken away. These parents believe it is the State’s responsibility to educate children, as previous policies aimed to do.

Necessity of police reform

The current focus should be on significant police reform to prevent future scandals, although the focus has shifted towards violence and riots. Fundamental reform of the police force is necessary. For example, every police officer should be equipped with a functional body camera to record encounters with individuals, as many countries do. Although police officers were recently provided with cameras, they often malfunctioned or were broken when such incidents occurred. Additionally, the 2017 law that broadened the definition of self-defence for police officers should be repealed. The current vague definition often leads to excessive use of force. Therefore, this law should be amended or replaced with a clearer definition of self-defence.

Police reform should also include training on how to handle tense situations, and the entry requirements for police academies should be more stringent. Currently, officers with a grade of 8/20 are eligible to join the academy, which contributes to mediocrity within the profession. Having well-qualified officers will help ensure they can handle tense situations appropriately. Furthermore, police officers’ salaries should be substantially increased to allow them to focus on their investigations without constantly worrying about making ends meet. Lastly, a specific type of police force called the municipal police, which was appreciated by many in the suburbs for its close proximity to the community, should be reinstated to rebuild a positive relationship between the police and the youth.

In order to address the current situation, it is essential to establish a dialogue based on mutual understanding between residents of the suburbs and police officers. Transparent and clear dialogue is crucial, as it allows police officers to express their concerns while also giving the youth an opportunity to voice their own issues. This dialogue will significantly contribute to revitalising the relationship between the police and suburban communities.

Involving influential figures who have lived in these challenging areas of France could be a solution. Having them visit schools and present non-violent and amicable ways of resolving issues between the suburbs and the police would be beneficial. Numerous solutions can be implemented, but both sides must acknowledge their mistakes and strive to move forward in a more unified manner.

It is important to note that resolving the relationship issue cannot be accomplished through fundraising competitions alone; it requires absolute justice on all sides, as always mentioned by Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih V, may Allah be his Helper.

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