Photo by Clement Mahoudeau / AFP

The French disorder

France needs more realism about its social decay

Artillery Row

It is commonplace to mock the French for their proclivity to protest — a regular exercise sometimes labelled as a “national sport”. It is certainly true that France has a strong track record in that field, historically speaking and in living memory as well. Therefore, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the violent death on 27 June of Nahel Merzouk, 17 years old, immediately provoked riots that escalated and spread across the nation. Shops were smashed and robbed. Cars and bins reduced to ashes. A strong impression of déjà vu. Indeed, as I scrolled down my Twitter feed, trying to catch up with the news, I realised that I recognised many of the places where these scenes happened. It was just a few streets away from my parents’ flat in Nanterre. Places where I would regularly walk were filled with heavily armed policemen and angered youths. The city of my teenage years was in shambles.

It would be easy to play the emotional card, something that one-trick pony Leftists revel in. The truth is that I was neither particularly surprised nor particularly moved. Contrary to many who project onto the French banlieues their saviour complex or moral grandstanding without having lived there, I had had to navigate the tense environment where Nahel grew up when I was myself a defenceless girl. During my primary and secondary studies, I was insulted on a regular basis, sometimes even spat at. My own brother had to change school because his Jewish heritage was enough to spark relentless bullying. Too often, teachers were weak and gave in to the mob that agitated their classrooms. It was a place I needed to leave because it had never been my home.

Mass immigration has exacerbated social segregation along racial lines

In fact, it couldn’t be my home. I found it inhospitable, dangerous, heinous at times. Ugly cages housed families. Public utilities were vandalised on a regular basis, covered with tribal graffitis, sometimes displaying used syringes. I arrived in Nanterre at the age of seven from Aubervilliers, another well-known banlieue north of Paris, where all of this was already part of the landscape. I remember wondering why all these places — on one, fundamental level — looked like one another, with similar perfumes of piss and weed, and communities who engaged less and less with one another. Rightfully, people were often unhappy. What was scary was how this unhappiness inspired widespread approval for even more violence.

Something in France persists in glorifying violence. Postmodern societies are far from being devoid of tensions of all sorts, some more palatable than others. Yet few of them look at the effusion of blood on their soil as an unavoidable reality, something to manage rather than eradicate. Perhaps some in France thought it could be contained — or transformed. In reality, hatred and crime have risen for several decades in the banlieues of all important cities across France. Both the nature and degree of the violence they generate have morphed, and their disfiguring effects on the social fabric of the country are more than scars.

They are the shapes and contours of a new civic paradigm, which is brewed and distilled in cities such as Nanterre. It is not even the “worst” banlieue. Other communes are much more ghetto-like, such as La Grande Borne in Grigny where Amédy Coulibaly grew up, the man who killed a policewoman and four people in a kosher supermarket siege during the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. All display the well-known characteristics of hardship, social inequalities, dreadful urban planning, drug dealing and radical Islam.

Throughout the 20th century, banlieues were generally inhabited by white working class people. Some liked these spaces. Others didn’t. Most shared the hope to live better lives by contributing actively to society. Today, however, the social ladder has collapsed, and mass immigration has exacerbated social segregation along racial lines.

Many of these banlieues are now states within the state, bubbles where people are in open conflict with the rule of law. There, might makes right. This is not even a question of mafia, since this new order doesn’t seek to interact at all with the rest of the Republican social body. For those who are afflicted by that violent minority, there is little hope left. Sometimes, hope actually feels like a foreign virtue. What can you possibly do when your neighbour threatens to kill your pet, blow up your car or hurt your kin?

Cases like that of Nahel remind us of the deep complexity of the situation. Initial peeks into the young man’s records with the police unveil repeated issues related to drugs and to driving, with up to twelve official arrests and a planned hearing in front of the Children’s Court. Nahel’s trajectory exposes in plain terms the fact that it is not simply a question of police failure. The retreat of the French state from the banlieues is structural. Social services failed; the educational system failed. Entire generations have grown up with little sense of responsibility and accountability. Young men and women don’t have any incentive to share their duties with that of their fellow compatriots.

The riots that followed Nahel’s death are simply the new normal in France

Some have romanticised this state of violence into a new founding myth. The 2022 Netflix production Athena, for example, depicts a civil war in France. Arab and African minorities rebel against the “oppressive” and “racist” French government following the death of a young boy from the banlieue during an altercation with the police. Romain Gavras, the director, entertains an obsession with the theme. It was already at the centre of his 2008 video clip “Stress”. Ironically, Gavras was called out by commentators at the time, who believed that he had perversely mirrored “right-wing” dystopian ideas such as that of the “Great Replacement”.

Amongst the different layers of irony that such a film showcases, there is one particularly awkward blind spot. These portraits of the banlieues recycle the French myth of the “noble savage”. They affirm the idea that seclusion (if not plain secession) at all costs is a just cause, that communities consumed by hostility are endearing. I’m sorry to break it to you, but criminal gang members are not innocent beings, whose anger is pure and whose soul is undisturbed by capitalism and other modern evils. This persistent aestheticisation of violence, sometimes flirting with anarchist symbolism, is disturbing.

It is appalling that many French people still struggle to firmly condemn the violence. Many have internalised the idea that conflict is an existential drive embedded in their history, the fabric of their institutions and their cultural behaviours. They find it hard to extract themselves from the narrative that grants them (or so they think) their rightful place and power amongst nations. In this state of mind, most manifestations of violence — as long as they do not come from the state itself — are revolutions waiting to surge. It is an endless replay of the mythical founding events of the modern state, which were forged at the intersection of hubris, willful forgetfulness and genuine ignorance.

This operates like a thermodynamic law of history. Implacable, it denigrates attempts to analyse events, for example by putting numbers on the damages, because it fosters a visceral aim to transgress. It also increasingly discriminates between which people have the right to call themselves victims of the “system” or not, depending on the source of the violence and the colour of their skin. A recent example of this is the astounding silence around the rape and murder of young Lola by an Algerian woman last October.

It would be wrong to enforce another analysis grid, such as that of the American “George Floyd” and BLM movement. The riots that followed Nahel’s death are simply the new normal in France. They represent one episode amongst many others in the grander scheme of civic society unevenly breaking down throughout the territory.

Positing violence as a necessary evil is, of course, a giant obstacle in the path of solutions. It makes the restoration of the rule of law a particularly difficult conundrum. That doesn’t mean that the state shouldn’t try. Instead, it remains entirely ambivalent. The delusional comments of President Macron, who blamed “video games and bad parenting”, are revolting. Some commentators keep using perversely affectionate nicknames such as the “lost children of the Republic” in order to make sense of the events. The Republic doesn’t care for lost children, and they do not care for it either. It might be wiser to simply acknowledge that the state has lost power over some of its territories, betraying the Republican principle of the “indivisible” nation.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover