In the 21st century, racism continues to divide people, casting a shadow over the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity—the very essence of the French Revolution. Today, France finds itself in a battle against this deep-rooted issue of racism. Ignited by a tragic incident of French police brutality captured on video. The ensuing protests and riots are fueled by long-simmering tensions surrounding law enforcement’s treatment of minorities. Moreover, demanding accountability and justice.
The events following the death of a 17-year-old boy shot by the police in a Paris suburb draw unsettling parallels to the racial reckoning. It unfolded in the US after the killings of George Floyd and other people of colour at the hands of law enforcement. Despite the cultural, institutional, and societal differences between the two countries. The shooting in France and the ensuing outcry reveal that the struggle against systemic racism and police brutality knows no borders.
Night after night, violent protests have erupted in multiple cities across France, triggered by the point-blank shooting of Nahel Merzouk. A teenager of North African descent, during a traffic stop—an act captured on video that has shaken the nation. Despite the massive deployment of police forces, armoured vehicles, air surveillance, curfews, and bans on demonstrations aimed at quelling the unrest. Over 700 people were arrested on a single night alone. Additionally, 45,000 officers have been dispatched to major cities. Indeed, Special Forces were deployed nationwide to restore peace.
A State of Emergency
President Emmanuel Macron, mindful of the highly sensitive situation, has been cautious about declaring a state of emergency. Striving to strike a delicate balance in a country already grappling with mass protests and strikes over controversial pension measures and rising inflation. That has added further strain to the nation’s social fabric. The killing of 17-year-old Nahel serves as a stark reminder that little has changed since the deaths of two teenagers who were pursued by the police in 2005.
In 2005, three frightened teenagers aged between 15 and 17 were chased by the police as they made their way home after a friendly football match. Though they had committed no wrongdoing (a fact confirmed by subsequent inquiries). These terrified children sought refuge in an electricity substation. Tragically, two of them, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted, while the third, Muhittin Altun, suffered severe burns and life-altering injuries.
The chilling words were spoken by one of the police officers as he watched the horrifying event unfold. “If they go in there [to the power plant], I don’t fancy their chances of making it,” added to the despair.
France was consumed by weeks of rioting in the aftermath—an eruption of anger that was unprecedented for years. However, just as with Nahel’s death, the initial media and political reaction in 2005 was to criminalize the victims and scrutinize their past. As if any of it could justify their brutal deaths. Responsibility for their tragedy was unjustly shifted onto their shoulders. Even Nicolas Sarkozy, who served as interior minister at the time, tarnished the memory of these young individuals by suggesting that running from the police indicated guilt. “If you have nothing to hide, you don’t run when you see the police.”
The Number of police brutality cases rises
The number of police brutality cases continues to rise relentlessly each year. According to the Defender of Rights in France, young men perceived to be black or of North African origin are subjected to police identity checks, at a rate 20 times higher than the rest of the population. This same institution has denounced the absence of an appeal process against such checks. However, as a form of systemic police discrimination. The fear and apprehension many feel towards the police is entirely justified.
In 1999, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the country that claims to be the birthplace of human rights for torture. Following the sexual abuse inflicted by the police on a young man of North African origin. In 2012, Human Rights Watch highlighted the susceptibility of the identity check system to abuse by French police. That included repeated and countless checks often accompanied by physical and verbal abuse. Now, in the wake of Nahel’s death, a UN rights body has called upon France. To confront the “profound problems of racism and racial discrimination” within its law enforcement agencies.
No positive measures were taken by the French government
Even French courts have found the state guilty of “gross negligence,” ruling in 2016 that racism profiling is an everyday reality in France. A truth acknowledged by international, European, and domestic institutions. Despite commitments made at the highest levels of government, no positive measures have been taken to address this issue. In December 2022, the UN Committee on the Elimination of racial discrimination denounced both the racist discourse of politicians. And the disproportionate targeting of certain minorities through police identity checks.
The struggle against racism in France has reached a critical juncture. Demanding comprehensive and transformative action. It necessitates a fundamental societal shift where the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity are genuinely upheld. This journey toward justice and equality is arduous. Requiring the collective efforts of all segments of society. Only acknowledging the problem, ensures accountability. Moreover, committing to tangible change can France reclaim its position as a shining beacon of human rights and social progress.