French riots a rebellion against poverty, racism and police

Riots swept France in early July after cops shot dead a 17-year-old, Nahel M, and then lied about it.

The explosion shows the anger and bitterness across France after months of protests against President Macron’s increase to the pension age.

Police said Nahel, from a French-Algerian family, had driven at officers after they tried to stop his vehicle. But a video circulated on Twitter showed the police by side of the car, which was at a standstill in the traffic.

One cop points his gun at the driver, and as the car moves away he shoots Nahel in the heart. Before the killer shot, the police gunman can be heard saying, “I’m going to put a bullet in your head.” A second officer says, “Shoot him.”

Killings by police have soared since a 2017 change to the law that relaxed the rules on shooting in “legitimate self-defence”. Since then, the number of deaths from “refusal to comply” has surged with at least 13 last year.

The French police are notorious for their racism and contempt for the country’s large Arab and Black population, whose families migrated from former French colonies in Africa. This has intensified as a result of Islamophobia during the “war on terror”.

One of those on the streets in Lyons explained “The background is that every week I’m hassled by the police, every week there’s some cop who snarls at me, and every week I hear of someone like me who is told they are a ‘dirty Arab’.

“The French left Algeria, but many of them still have an invader’s thoughts. Many think they are better than us, that we are not from the same world.”

He lives in one of the suburbs dominated by families of migrants, where youth unemployment is 40 per cent and half the population live below the poverty line.

Vile racism has become mainstream after politicians targeted Muslims, banning the hijab in schools in 2004 and then the “burkini” on French beaches in 2016.

Macron, and presidents before him, have used racism time and again. During the turmoil over the attack on pensions his government launched a new anti-migrant bill to speed up deportations.

This has helped feed the far right, with last year’s presidential election seeing the fascist Marine Le Pen come second with 41 per cent in the second round.

Far right groups took to the streets during the riots to physically attack Arab and Black youth.


The riots are a rebellion against racism, poverty and violent police. They echo the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, which saw a police station and other buildings in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, burnt to the ground.

The left has to make clear its solidarity with all those fighting back against racism and the police.

As the revolutionary socialist group in France linked to Solidarity, Autonomie de Classe, put it “We should champion the bravery and determination of young, mainly black and Arab working class people”, calling the riots part of “a process of class-confrontation against capitalism, the ruling class and the forces and the structures of the state”.

But much of the French left has a long-term problem in failing to fight racism.

The most high-profile figure on the left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, denounced the police as “uncontrolled”. It was hardly a wild description after months of police assaults on pension protesters and now their attempt to cover up Nahel’s execution.

But after being attacked by the Labor-type Socialist Party, which is part of Melenchon’s electoral coalition, he seemed to retreat.

He spoke of his “absolute disavowal” of the attack on the house of the right-wing mayor of L’Hay-les-Roses. And his central demands are merely improved police training and for independent “oversight commissions”.

Police who talk of being “at war” with “vermin” can’t be changed through new training programs.

Other members of Melenchon’s party have been better. Clementine Autain said, “We don’t want a return to normal, because what is abnormal is precisely the normal situation. The responsibility for these riots lies with the power that left the situation to rot.

“Inequalities have worsened, poverty has exploded, public services have deteriorated.”

But French Communist Party leader Fabien Roussel, also part of Melenchon’s coalition, has viciously attacked the rioters. He announced his “absolute condemnation of the violence that took place”—and he didn’t mean the cops.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King called riots “the language of the unheard”.

Riots do not have the same power as strikes to shake the system and target the profits on which capitalism depends. But if the rage on the streets is fused with the power of workplace struggles it could produce a large, powerful movement against the system.

With material from Socialist Worker UK


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