Justice for Nahel


The Roots of the Uprising in France


The following text was sent to us by French comrades on the third day of unrest following the murder of the teenager Nahel Merzouk by French police in the city of Nanterre, a suburb of Paris. It provides an analysis of the situation and an overview of the fight against police brutality in France starting in the 1970s.

Today, this movement is facing intense repression in the streets, the media, and the courts. As of now, at least three people have been killed in addition to Nahel. Rather than focus on the deployment of specialized military police across the country, we prefer to begin with the efforts of the young people who are risking their lives to stand up for Nahel and for themselves.

In the streets, many people say that the feelings of rage and the intensity of the fight is reminiscent of the riots of 2005. Just as those riots took place following the student movement of 2005, this veritable uprising has followed the powerful movement against the pension reform imposed by President Emmanuel Macron, which faced unprecedented repression in the spring. Despite tremendous allocations of resources and veritable legal impunity, police in France appear to be losing both their perceived legitimacy and their ability to intimidate large sectors of the public into passivity.

Justice for Nahel

On June 27, 2023, Nahel Merzouk, age 17, was driving a car in Nanterre when motorcycle police stopped him for a roadside check, then murdered him in cold blood. As one of the passengers later described, one officer threatened Nahel, “Don’t move or I’ll put a bullet in your head.” Then both officers struck him through the open window of the car. Stunned by the blows, Nahel accidentally released the brake and hit the accelerator, upon which one officer shot and killed him. We know all of this because almost the entire scene was filmed.

The video of Nahel’s murder quickly went viral on social media outlets, which have played a key role in the ensuing unrest. 

People swiftly reacted in the streets.

Starting that first night, June 27, violent clashes broke out in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods in Nanterre and other suburbs of Paris (Mantes-la-Jolie, Boulogne-Billancourt, Clichy-sous-Bois, Colombes, Asnières, Montfermeil) and across France (Roubaix, Lille, Bordeaux…). On June 28, despite politicians acknowledging the heinous character of this murder and the government and the moderate fringes of the left making calls for peace, the revolt spread to other towns (Neuilly sur Marne, Clamart, Wattrelos, Bagnolet, Montreuil, Saint Denis, Dammarie les Lys, Toulouse, Marseille…).   In the meantime, Nahel’s family set up a “Truth and Justice committee” (“Comité Vérité et Justice”) with the assistance of Assa Traoré (whose brother was brutally killed by the police in 2016) and former militants of the “Mouvement de l’Immigration et des Banlieues” (MIB). Nahel’s mother, a model of dignity and courage, called for a great marche blanche (“white march”) in Nanterre, set for the afternoon of June 29.

On the morning of June 29, the government declared that they were opening an investigation as to whether the police officer who murdered Nahel committed voluntary manslaughter. This apparently did not dissuade people from attending the march.

This great march drew together an estimated 15,000 people. They retraced Nahel’s last drive, marching to the rhythm of slogans including “Everybody hates the police,” “Cop, rapist, murderer” and “Justice for Nahel.” One sign read, “How many other Nahels have not been filmed?”

From that moment, it was obvious that Nahel’s death had come as a huge shock, and that many of the protesters were marching in solidarity with the victim’s family. But the demands were also about something much broader: the role of the police in our society. As if they were aware of this, the pigs decided to gas this peaceful march as it arrived at the Préfecture (the regional branch of the central government) in Nanterre, setting off a new wave of clashes that spread as far as the chic business district of La Défense. “If they don’t let us do the march, we’ll fuck everything up” was the message heard among the young rioters.  

After the marche blanche in Nanterre, June 29.

It would be impossible to list every district and town that joined the movement on the evening of June 29, as there were so many. Undiminished by the announcement that the government would investigate the killing, this third night of unrest gave the movement an unprecedented scope. The jeunes de quartiers (as the media and politicians often refer to them—equivalent to ‘‘kids from the projects’’) have set fire to cars, motorcycles and scooters, and public buildings including local and national police stations, schools, municipal libraries, prefectures, and town halls. They have destroying street furniture, looted supermarkets, and set fire to building sites in addition to employing fireworks in clashes with the police. Over the past several years, these have become the preferred self-defense weapon among young people who are subjected to daily harassment and arbitrary police operations.

This countrywide insurgency did not come out of nowhere. It is spontaneous, in the sense that it is largely horizontal, unpredictable, and constantly inventing new forms of resistance in line with the aspirations that drive it. But this revolt also emerges as a response to the way that the state has managed post-colonial immigration.

The Background of the Uprising

Since the 1960s, the French state has taken advantage of a workforce “imported” from its former colonies in North and West Africa. The initial plan wasn’t for these workers to build a life and settle in France. They were contained in specific areas: first, in slums, and then in Projects—“cités”—at the periphery of major urban centers. These areas have come to be known as the “banlieues.”

In the 1970s, when it became obvious that the Black and Arab workers were a permanent part of the population of France, they became a political problem. The political parties that succeeded each other in power adopted a policy of exception. The goal was to maintain racial boundaries and to control a category of people constantly scrutinized and described as a menace to the social order. Consequently, working-class immigrant neighborhoods have chiefly been managed through policing. The police (and the prefectures upon which the local police depend) are almost exclusively responsible for managing and controlling day-to-day activities in the “cités,” which have become sites of experimentation for France’s own brand of policing.

The inhabitants of these neighborhoods experience humiliation, intimidation, and retaliation from police on a daily basis. In addition to being excluded from the political life of the country, youth from immigrant backgrounds are constantly controlled, insulted, and arrested. Likewise, all the activities and trades that the most precarious depend on to survive are heavily criminalized.

The riots must also be understood in the context of the long history of racially-motivated police murders in France. In France, as in the United States, the gratuitous use of violence against individuals who are thus excluded from the dominant conception of humanity is one of the mechanisms that produce and maintain racial categories. The police have killed hundreds of Black and Arab young men since the 1970s. In part, this is the result of the intense and continued police presence in immigrant neighborhoods; more generally, it is a material consequence of the structural racism that defines the relationship between the French state and the young people whose families immigrated to France after the 1960s amid the gradual dismantlement of the French colonial empire.

For decades, people in the quartiers (literally, “neighborhoods”1) have taken up explicit political positions against police violence. In 1983, people organized the “Marche pour l’Egalité” (March for Equality) in response to a series of police murders in the suburbs of Lyon and Marseille. Massive riots have occurred every ten years since 1979 in the city of Vaulx-en-Velin, a symbol of state-driven police violence against non-white youth. Created in 1995, the “Mouvement Immigration Banlieue” fought for “truth and justice” (vérité et justice) for the families of the victims of “police blunders” (the euphemism that apologists use to describe acts of extreme police brutality). It was a self-organized, autonomous organization that rejected the discourses of mainstream political parties. In the year 2000, it was evicted from its space in Paris.

In 2005, an insurrection broke out after two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, died after being chased and harassed by the police in Clichy-sous-Bois, in the north of Paris. Among many others, we remember Lamine Dieng, who was murdered by police in 2005; Adama Traoré, murdered by police in 2016; Théo Luhaka, raped by police in 2017; Ibrahima Bah, killed by police in 2019.

It’s the same scenario every time: police commit murder, then lie to protect themselves. Sometimes, a video or a protest challenges the police narrative, providing enough evidence to force the authorities to open a case against the murderer. But legal procedures against the cops almost never conclude with a conviction. In France, the law serves the interests of the state; in practice, the police are granted a free hand and legal immunity.

In the past few days, we have seen, once again, that the state protects those who defend it. When the paramedic who treated Nahel after he was shot in the chest revealed the name of the officer who murdered him to the media, he was immediately sentenced to 18 months in prison.2

In the Context of Intensifying Social Strife

To understand these riots, we must also see them in the context of contemporary class struggle in France. France has experienced a nationwide social movement or wave of unrest almost every year since 2016. Riots have become an integral part of the French political language, and what we are seeing in 2023 may be the most radical expression of that to date.

In other words—in view of how unpopular the neoliberal policies forcefully implemented in France since 2016 have been, the governments of François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron were only able to stay in power thanks to the violence of the police. Because they understand the structuring relationships of power that connect the state, the government, the police, and the population, right-wing and fascist police unions have methodically organized to concentrate more and more social benefits in their hands, as well as the technological and legal means to inflict violence on everyone else.

For example, in 2017, a law gave the police the right (and therefore the incentive) to use firearms when an individual refuses to cooperate with them. The direct consequence of this law was a dramatic increase in the annual number of police murders. Before 2017, the police (officially) killed 15 to 20 young Black and Arab men each year; that number rose to 51 in 2021 and has averaged 40 ever since.

More generally, there have been more and more new officers hired every year, with more and more equipment at their disposal. Militarized police inflict systematic repression against social movements; the ever-accelerating militarization of the police is one of the factors that explains the feeling of powerlessness that characterizes some leftists in France. Concretely, this creates tense and precarious life circumstances for many, especially for women living in immigrant neighborhoods. Our mothers.

Consequences of the marche blanche in Nanterre, June 29.

The Unrest

Regarding the current wave of unrest, I can only speak from my position, describing what I have seen in the city where I live in the suburbs close to Paris.

The movement has used three primary tactics, all very effectively: violent clashes with police, the destruction of “symbols” of the Republic, and looting.

The clashes with police have mostly occurred inside the projects, the “quartiers.” “Light them up!” Everyone has seen these images: the cops are attacked with fireworks, Molotov cocktails, stones, and outdoor furniture by people in black bloc attire, often very young. Some of the offensive actions that have occurred at night may be less motivated by solidarity with Nahel in particular than by a more general desire to take revenge on those who control, humiliate, and beat people every day. It is as if the balance of power has temporarily changed sides.

In the moment of confrontation, there are no slogans, no leftist messages, only the radical will to fight back. Most of the crews that are participating are comprised of young people, predominantly men, who have known each other for a long time. The people engaging in these tactics have no desire for mediation.

Clashes at a city hall in a district near Paris.

The young participants, many of whom are teenagers, are methodical. They have attacked county offices, city halls, and sites of executive power, all for obvious reasons. But they are also attacking the schools that segregate and exclude and force people into the capitalist system; the police stations in which the cops capture their friends and beat them; the surveillance cameras that monitor their movements; public transportation infrastructure, which is rare in the “quartiers” and often newly built to shuttle gentrifiers to their newly flipped suburban houses; and the construction sites building new and instantly obsolete infrastructure for the Olympic Games, which are playing a significant role in the gentrification of the suburbs.

Finally, the movement has shown its creative power in the field of looting, particularly in the role that cars and scooters have played. Cars are used to force doors and fences, while scooters allow for a quick exit afterwards. Scooters also play a crucial part in the clashes with police. Without going into too much detail, mobility is crucial to the battles that take place at night.

What is looted? Almost everything, but contrary to the corporate media narrative, most of the looting isn’t festive or fun: the huge majority of what is taken is simply basic commodities and medication. This implies that the movement sparked by Nahel’s death also expresses a fundamentally anti-capitalist rejection of precarity and the high cost of living.

Overheard at 4 am in the neighborhood supermarket: “I’m taking all this for my mom.”

Consequences of the marche blanche in Nanterre, June 29.

Despite the profoundly universal nature of the political feeling at the heart of the unrest, and the centrality of the fight against police brutality in social movements since (at least) 2016, the possibility of an alliance between the left and the young rioters remains tenuous. Leftist politicians are largely calling for peace and reconciliation, imagining projects to “reform a republican police” that would “reopen dialogue between the police and the people” (“refonder une police républicaine” and “rétablir le dialogue entre la police et sa population”).

The revolutionary left (which is chiefly Trotskyst in France) supports the “Comité Vérité et Justice pour Nahel” formed by family members and close supporters, on the model of the “Comité Vérité et Justice pour Adama” and the Traoré family, but they haven’t taken any public position regarding the current uprising. As for anarchists and other autonomous groups, they are still finding their footing, mostly keeping to observation, legal, and logistical support roles—even if some of us participate actively participate in the riots.

In the end, the movement goes on regardless, and the youth who are participating are not particularly concerned about groups that they don’t feel themselves to be a part of.

Update, Wednesday, July 5: Court Repression

A little more than a week after Nahel’s passing, following five nights of revolt, the French state is using the full weight of the judiciary system to crush the uprising. If anyone remained in doubt, it is now clear: there will be no justice and no peace.

More than 300 people were sentenced to prison last night. Yesterday, at Créteil, in the southern part of the Paris region, almost all the youth who were being judged were sent to prison. It didn’t matter whether they had good lawyers, bad lawyers, whether there was evidence or no evidence, whether they had good personality references, whether they had snitched. At the end of the day, everyone went back to Fresnes with sentences ranging from 6 to 30 months.

Perhaps that one afternoon that we witnessed was particularly bad, but the news from other courthouses across the Paris region is just as bad. The judges are following a directive of June 30 from Minister of Justice Eric Dupond-Moretti (an avowed rapist and asshole), in which he calls for a “firm and fast response” with strict “safety measures”—in other words, imprisonment. The prosecutors and judges are eagerly complying.

Across France, people as young as 12 years old are being systematically sentenced to months or more in prison. In the streets, the affect is more and more nihilistic: “they can’t catch us all.” Still, for the past few days, things have been calmer at night. It could be that the repression is working to intimidate people; or that mothers are keeping their kids at home; or that the looting has slowed down because the stores need to be filled up with goods again; or that people are waiting for the weekend of July 14, the French national holiday, to set things ablaze once more.

You can read more about comparution immédiates (“immediate judgement”), which has been used in almost all the cases this week, here.

Further Reading and Viewing

Nanterre, cité Pablo Picasso.

  1. Here, quartiers is the casual term by which people who live in immigrant neighborhoods in suburban cities refer to their communities. 

  2. This source suggests that the details of the situation are a bit more complicated; it confirms that a paramedic was given a suspended sentence in relation to Nahel’s murder, while another person who allegedly revealed information about the murderer was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, 12 of which were suspended.