I HAVE never felt as uncomfortable and scrutinised in any European capital as I have in Paris, where many white people exude silent belligerence.
I wasn’t surprised, then, by the video of a French policemen shooting a teenager of Algerian descent during a routine traffic stop. The teenager was 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk. In the days following the fatal shooting, thousands of rioters took to the streets of France and burned down shops and cars. The protesters said they identified with the teenager because they too had faced persecution by the police. The incident seems to have brought France’s racism towards Muslims and other non-white immigrants to the forefront.
A huge crowd of French Muslims attended the funeral prayers of Merzouk, whose family members were protected by security guards provided by the mosque at which they were held. In an illustrative irony, no police officers were present at the large public event, even though 45,000 of them had been mobilised to go after rioters following his death. France has a large Muslim population, but their existence seems to be ignored by the state.
Some of those attending the funeral prayers pointed out to the media that had there not been a video of the incident, Merzouk’s death, like so many others at the hands of an overzealous, brutal French police, would have been ignored.
It is alarming that Macron has yet to understand the reasons behind the riots.
For its part, the Macron government has acted with the same wrongheadedness as the administrations before it. As rioters began to destroy government property and stores and started to attack police officers, government officials began to condemn the loss of property rather than the core reason behind the riots. Property losses and injuries to policemen were dragged to the centre of the debate rather than the animosity that state instruments show towards those of Algerian and Moroccan descent in France. This has only whetted the destructive appetites of the rioters, who see the response as yet another example of a white-dominated French state ignoring the pressing problems faced by French Muslims of Algerian and Moroccan origin.
Soon after Merzouk was killed, the protests had spread all across France. In one incident, rioters began to target the homes of mayors seen as colluding with the government. The home of the mayor of L’Hay-les-Roses — a usually quiet area — was targeted. The mayor’s family was injured when rioters rammed their car through the gate of the residence, set the vehicle on fire and launched firework rockets. The French association of mayors has become even more vocal about quelling the protests.
At a meeting with French officials on July 4, Macron hoped to “start the painstaking, long-term work needed to understand the deeper reasons” behind the events. It is difficult to establish if he meant this as a delaying tactic where the obvious racism of state officials towards the Muslim minority can continue to be ignored until later. Even if he was sincere about wanting to understand the problem, the fact that he does not understand it yet is depressing enough. If anything, it reveals just how oblivious the French majority is to the lives of French Muslims living amongst them for decades. The fact that the country’s top political official thinks that there is a need for further research to understand a very basic story of racism and abuse of power is alarming.
Only a few weeks have passed since hundreds of Pakistanis died while being smuggled to Europe on a fishing boat. It truly hurts the heart to realise that young people from Pakistan are quite literally putting their lives at risk to get to European countries, including France, where it is almost guaranteed that they will be treated poorly, exploited, perhaps even killed as non-white immigrants. And yet it appears that these migrant flows from an inflation-wracked, climate change-battered, and politically stunted Pakistan will increase.
One of the biggest gripes the mainstream middle-class French have against the poverty-stricken French Muslims of the suburbs is that they take advantage of the social welfare state set up after World War II. These immigrants should not be milking the government in this way is the refrain. It is a clever trick, because the real sentiment behind it is that the social welfare system should only benefit good white people (the real French) and not the immigrants.
It is quite likely that as more migrants pour into European countries, the now quaint-sounding liberal values of freedom, equality and brotherhood will be done away with altogether. In their place will be some formula that permits racist European states to limit government benefits to non-white people.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2023