The killing of defenceless 17 year old French Algerian Nahel by police in France has shocked many, but the institution has a violent history. The world can now see how brutal one of the deadliest forces in Europe really is, writes Yasser Louati.
The French government has resisted any attempts to deal with police violence and racism, writes Yasser Louati.
The tragic killing of 17 year old Nahel Merzouk by French police point blank in the heart has rocked the country. Uprisings expressing rage and pain over the murder broke out soon after the video of the event went viral on social media. What makes the entire affair worse, if the fact that it is unfortunately not the first and given how the French Republic protects its Police, it will likely not be the last.
Nahel’s killing has invited many questions. Who armed the policeman? Who made him pull his gun for a traffic stop when his life was visibly not in danger? Which institution trained him to believe that he could shoot to kill and get away with it? The answer to all of these, is the Republic.
The French Police, which is considered one of the deadliest in Europe, is a deeply dysfunctional institution. In fact, it’s notorious for being incompetent – at least, for those who still believe the police exists to protect the people.
''In reality, the riots are an indication of a deeply divided society. It is a face-off between one half of the population that is outraged by the assassination of a defenceless teenager – which includes those who face the brunt of racist, repressive and violent policing – and the other that is cheering on the police, which includes those who make up the force itself.''
In 2014, Paris Senator Catherine Dumas raised the issue to the minister of interior with scathing details. For example, to boost recruitment, the passing grade at the entry exam was brought down to 8/20 or 40%. Whilst in 2012 only 1 out of 50 candidates was admitted, today it is 1 out of 5. Furthermore, training was cut from 12 to 8 months.
It is reported that even the level of spoken and written French, a fundamental skill, are below standards amongst the force. Even physical abilities were put into question.
The government initially reacted to Nahel’s killing by calling out the policeman’s use of deadly force, and declared it “inexcusable”. But, they have since quickly changed their tone and instead opted for heavy repression. Rather than addressing the root causes of the problem, president Emmanuel Macron sent 45,000 police officers and their elite units (RAID/BRI) to “quell” the protests that have erupted. Many images have been circulating of their classic heavy handed approach.
This only reinforced the belief that this government has a much deeper fear of the power of the police than any in the past. In 2020, when then minister of interior Christophe Castaner, dared to speak up about potential racism within the police, he was sacked. This was despite his support of the force during its bloody crackdown on the Yellow Vest movement.
The sacking, it turned out, had been orchestrated by the main police union which is historically incredibly well organised and doesn’t hesitate to apply its collective power to influence government decisions.
This fear of the Police has again been put on display by the minister of urban affairs, Olivier Klein, who when asked to comment on the raising of €1 million for the officer who shot Nahel - by a far-right National Rally member Jean Messiha who was also the former adviser to Marine Le Pen - failed to offer a condemnation.
In truth, the police have publicly pressured governments from every political background. During the state of emergency in 2016, officers marched armed with their faces covered to oppose the government, and rather than being sanctioned, they obtained €250 million. A year later, conceding to the pressure of police unions, then socialist minister of interior and the rest of the socialist party passed a bill to broaden the definition of “legitimate self-defence” for the police, and forbid individuals from resisting when summoned by the police.
In reality, the riots are an indication of a deeply divided society. It is a face-off between one half of the population that is outraged by the assassination of a defenceless teenager – which includes those who face the brunt of racist, repressive and violent policing – and the other that is cheering on the police, which includes those who make up the force itself.
Contrary to the investments and government support of the police, conditions in the poor and racialised suburbs have only worsened. Since the 2005 uprisings that followed the deaths of 15-year-old Bouna Traore, and 17-year-old Zyed Benna, who were both electrocuted to death whilst being chased by police, during which the masses expressed similar rage over structural oppression, inequality and state neglect, unemployment is almost three times higher than in the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Almost half of the poorest towns in France are found in the suburbs of Paris. where black people and Arabs face heavy discrimination at work and access to housing. Additionally, public schooling, rather than reducing inequalities, is actually widening the gap between those who live in poor cities and those sheltered in richer ones.
Racial profiling and harassment is also a daily reality for young black and brown people who are 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police.
It takes some nerve for the state to call for calm, especially given Macron’s handling of the protests that broke out over his deeply unpopular pension reform. He ignored the vast majority of the population’s discontent, brutally repressed demonstrators, and manoeuvred to prevent the national assembly from voting down the bill related to the reform. Far from espousing the so-called Republic’s values of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité.’
It seems France is continuously moving backwards on civil liberties and freedoms. The government has resisted any attempts to deal with police violence and racism. Just a few years ago, for example, the government brought back the motorised police (Brav-M) that was responsible for the beating to death of Malik Oussekine, and has a track record of indiscriminate use of violence, particularly against demonstrators.
What the rest of the world is now watching unravel on the streets of France has been brewing for many years. Nahel’s death was only the tipping point. The scenes of red glowing cities from burning fires and black smoke are the price of state denial. However, as long as the government continues to defend the police and to ignore the demands of those who’ve taken to the streets, and have suffered decades of unspeakable repression, there are reasons to fear that there will be many more Nahels in the future. The difference now, is that the people are making it clear that they are not prepared to lose another life.
Yasser Louati is a French political analyst and head of the Committee for Justice & Liberties (CJL). He hosts a hit podcast called "Le Breakdown with Yasser Louati" in English and "Les Idées Libres" in French.
Follow him on Twitter: @yasserlouati
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.