Sunday, 3rd December 2023

France: The myth of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité

By Adekeye Adebajo
20 July 2023   |   1:58 am
France often likes to pride itself as the heir of progressive regicidal revolutionaries, as enshrined in its national motto: liberté, égalité, and fraternité (liberty, equality, and fraternity).


France often likes to pride itself as the heir of progressive regicidal revolutionaries, as enshrined in its national motto: liberté, égalité, and fraternité (liberty, equality, and fraternity). The recent riots in the country have, however, exposed the profound socio-economic fault-lines and dyed-in-the-wool racism of a country in deep denial. France historically used a perverse mission civilisatrice to engage in three centuries of brutal slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas, followed by a century of an often savage colonialism in Africa which culminated in one million Algerian deaths and a massacre in Madagascar. It has failed to offer a full apology, let alone pay reparations, for these atrocities. The last six decades have also witnessed an obstinate and often abusive neo-colonial political, military, and economic relationship with Africa, that is now fraying at the edges, as the Gallic Emperor’s nakedness is increasingly exposed.

Following the emergence of the video of the execution-style killing of a 17-year old Algerian-Moroccan-French youth, Nahel Merzouk, in broad daylight, by a French policeman at a traffic stop in a Parisian suburb, six nights of rioting erupted across Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Lille, Dijon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg. These attacks resulted in 3,700.arrests; 5,000 burned cars; 11,000 lit fires; 2,000 looted shops; and attacks on police stations, town halls, tax offices, and post offices: all seen as symbols of state oppression. The damages from these attacks reached an estimated €1 billion.

The officer who killed Nahel was charged with homicide. This occurred only because of video evidence of the motorist driving away from the policeman who had pointed a gun to Nahel’s head and threatened to shoot him. Before the video emerged, the French police had publicly lied that Nahel had driven straight at the policeman whom it alleged had acted in self-defence.

Marginalised Maghrebis, Brutalised Blacks
These events once again highlight the pent-up anger of brutalised and marginalised black and brown populations in France’s destitute banlieues (suburbs) which lack basic social services and decent schools, hospitals, and housing, despite half-hearted efforts at urban renewal and failed entrepreneurial projects. Also pertinent is the institutional racism of the French police and constant harassment of Maghrebi and black African youths living in impoverished housing estates. A culture of impunity is widespread among the French police in these communities, fanned by mainstream politicians, led by President Emmanuel Macron.

The anger of the rioters is so raw because black and brown youths know that, like Nahel, they could easily have been the one shot dead by the police. So many African and Maghrebi youths have died at the hands of French police under suspicious circumstances: Lamine Dieng (2007); Hakim Ajimi (2008); Amine Bentoussi (2012); Amadou Koumé (2015); Adama Traoré (2016); and Jean-Paul Benjamin (2022), are just a few in recent years. Nahel’s death was thus not unusual, which helps to contextualize the rage of the rioters. Since 2020, French police have killed 21 people in similar traffic stops as Nahel’s.  Most of them have been black and brown citizens who are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than their white compatriots. The trigger-happy French police are thus seen in these communities as a dangerous source of insecurity and terror, and not as public protectors. They serve the state, not local communities.

The Jupiterean Emperor
Rather than show sympathy and solidarity with the victim of this ghastly killing, France’s self-styled Jupiterean president, Emmanuel Macron, instead publicly embraced police chiefs, noting in a meeting: “We are with you,“ while praising the police’s apparent “professionalism”. Though at first describing Nahel’s shooting as “inexcusable”, Macron soon resorted to his reflexive machoism, deploying 45,000 police to deal with a situation that was being treated like a war against citizens wielding stones and fireworks. The French president has been tone-deaf to demands to call off his “mad dogs” unleashed against angry citizens in poor ghettos. Following the riots, fast-track judges in “kangaroo courts” were encouraged to dish out rapid jail sentences in sham trials in which the most basic tenets of the rule of law did not seem to have been observed. Over 380 people were jailed in the first two days of the riots: one 28-year old man was imprisoned for 10 months for stealing a can of Red Bull from a looted supermarket. This “expedited justice” has been contrasted with the 5-10 years  it can take to achieve any prosecution of policemen who have killed unarmed black and brown citizens.

Rather than addressing the root causes of the genuine grievances that have triggered this violence, Macron has instead tried to distract attention away from the real issues. Playing the populist politician, he inanely suggested – similar to American right-wing conservatives who attack Hollywood for being the source of all youth delinquency – that video games and social media among youths had catalyzed these events. Acting like a tin-pot dictator, he then threatened to cut off social media which he accused of spreading hate. He patronizingly put the responsibility on Maghrebi and black parents to keep their children at home, using the dog whistle to reinforce the widely held stereotypical beliefs among the majority, of cultures that lack good morals, in a society that already widely considers brown and black people to be “backward” and not representative of “enlightened” French values.

Racist Politicians, Police, and People
In 2005, French police had chased three Maghrebi and black teenagers walking home after playing football into an electric substation, where two of them – Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré – were electrocuted, triggering three weeks of riots. The breathtakingly insensitive interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy – recently sentenced to three years in prison for corruption and influence-peddling – had implied that the teenagers were thieves, as they were running from the police. He also described rioting Maghrebi and black youths as “scum.”

After the recent riots, French politicians again fell over themselves to put out a tough “law and order” message. Interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, noted that: “It’s the republic that will win, not the rioters”: language, dripping with vulgar jingoism, that was clearly intended as a coded message of a “civilized” republic under threat from foreign “barbarians”. Darmanin later made the extraordinary statement: “police violence doesn’t exist.” The right-wing head of the French Senate, Bruno Retailleau, also condemned second and third generation French migrants’ behavior, in racist terms, as “regression towards their ethnic roots.”   
Not to be outdone, two of France’s police unions described rioters as ‘vermin’ and ‘savage hordes’ with whom they were ‘at war’.

The ill-disciplined French police appear to have inherited the colonial policing culture of the savage Algerian war (1954-1962) when torture and wanton murder of innocent civilians was widespread. The highly militarized police – long cited for human rights abuses and discriminatory behavior by the European Court of Human Rights, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Council of Europe, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and a plethora of domestic civil rights organisations – responded characteristically to the rioters with armoured personnel carriers, helicopters, stun grenades, and projectiles. A 2017 law making it easier for the police to use their weapons without necessarily having to justify it on the basis of self-defence, has virtually given the French police a sense it has a licence to kill. The country’s police has also been criticized for using excessive force against gilet jaunes (yellow vest) and anti-pension reform protesters.

Furthermore, it is important to note that 41% of the French population – a staggering 13 million people – voted for the openly racist, anti-immigration far-right Marine Le Pen in last year’s presidential election. An astonishing €1.6 million has been raised to support the murderous policeman’s legal defence fund, compared to the less than €200,000 for the family of his victim. Parts of the mainstream French media are also guilty of criminalizing black and brown people in their reporting. Many supposedly progressive French academics often condone police brutality against foreigners.

Of Leftists and Resisters
In stark contrast to the prejudiced narratives of many Gallic politicians and police, scores of French civic groups and left-wing politicians have demonstrated more understanding and sympathy for the plight of oppressed communities. Almost 100 trade unions, associations, and left-wing parties – including the Greens, and Unbowed France – marched in solidarity to demand police reforms after Nahel’s killing. Civil society groups such as SOS Racisme, the Defender of Rights, Mother’s Front, and Community House for Solidarity Development have gallantly fought for the voices of the marginalised to be heard, and for institutionalized racism within the police to be addressed through concrete reforms such as establishing an independent investigative body and conducting an independent audit of police racism. Their marches, letters, and petitions have, however, often gone unheeded.    

Some French politicians have also resisted the populist urge, and spoken out against injustices. Nanterre Mayor, Patrick Jarry, noted the role that the lack of jobs, housing, and schooling play in fueling the rage in marginalised minority suburbs. The leader of Unbowed France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also accused the government of being scared of the police, and effectively backing its excesses.  

Adieu to the Assimilationist Myth?
The fundamental problem of the French social model is that it insists on the myth of imaginary “universalist” values in which it bans the collecting of any race-based data, while pretending that racism does not exist. This is despite voluminous research showing the ever-widening gulf between down-trodden Maghrebi and black populations, and the rest of society. France insists on a “colour blind” society and derides Anglo-Saxon “multiculturalism,” but has ended up entrenching institutional racism and turning politically invisible and culturally marginalized black and brown minorities into second-class citizens. Its assimilationist policies have clearly proved counter-productive, as many minority communities continue to reject a mainstream culture that many feel have criminalized them and stripped them of their dignity and humanity. These events clearly demonstrate that the French model of citizenship is completely broken.
Professor Adebajo is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.