Analysis: Understanding the revolts in France after Nahel’s murder
Paris: On June 27, 2023, during a routine traffic control that went wrong, a police officer opened fire on Nahel, a 17-year-old boy in his car. The young man, hit in the chest, releases the brake, and his car crashed a few meters away into barriers. Inside the vehicle, two of his friends watched the scene. They were shocked. Nahel exclaimed, “He’s crazy! He shot!” Those were his last words. The teenager died moments later. The friend who recounted these events is a 14-year-old boy, present in the car at the time. Nahel was driving him to school to take an exam. The adolescent, who had just witnessed his friend’s death, stepped out of the car in a state of shock with his hands up, only to be violently apprehended and thrown to the ground.
All of this took place in front of the smartphones of several bystanders who just filmed the incident. The footage quickly spread across social media and immediately ignited immense anger, spreading like wildfire throughout the country.
In the city of Nanterre, where the tragedy occurred, hundreds of people, mainly from disadvantaged neighbourhoods and suburbs, took to the streets and attacked what they perceived as symbols of the state: cars, shops, schools, and even town halls.
The ensuing comments in the media and on social networks revealed a profound symbolic divide that went beyond the isolated incident, exposing a deeper underlying trend in French society. Some denounced the killing of a minor by a person in a position of authority, especially for a mere refusal to comply, while others lamented the supposed loss of authority in the country, placing the victim’s actions above the act of murder itself.
Quickly, an online fundraising campaign was launched, however not for the victim’s family but for the police officer (another would be raised later for the victim’s mother). This campaign was initiated by Jean Messiah, a figure from the far-right in France, who was allied with Eric Zemmour, a former far-right presidential candidate in the 2022 French election. Within days, the campaign raised nearly 1.6 million euros, fueling the anger of Nahel’s supporters who demanded justice.
Two police unions, UNSA and ALLIANCE, also fuelled tensions by tweeting congratulations “to the colleague who opened fire on a 17-year-old criminal.” They added, “By neutralizing his vehicle, they protected their lives and the lives of other road users. The only ones responsible for this thug’s death are his parents, who were unable to educate their son.” This statement was in line with the initial statement given by the police officers to investigators, claiming they were threatened by the vehicle because it was in front of them at the time of the incident. However, the video footage clearly demonstrated the falsity of this testimony and started a justice procedure. Nevertheless, the unions did not stop there and issued a press release describing the revolts in response to Nahel’s murder as the actions of “savage hordes” and calling for a “fight against these harmful (editor’s note: « nuisibles » in French, a term usually referring to insects).” The press release ended with the following declaration: “We are at war”, which is significant, considering that it comes from two unions that represent the vast majority of the police force in France.
Simultaneously, various political forces organised themselves to denounce the murder of Nahel. The opposition encompassed a range of responses. Between the regulated institutional responses of the political class and those of the outraged, a large spectrum of reactions emerged. Activists, journalists, and even YouTubers organised their replies to express their disapproval. However, within the media and political sphere, a mechanism was set in motion to reduce the protest to its most extreme manifestations and assimilate any support for Nahel with scenes of urban violence, looting, and arson.
Numerous politicians, as is often the case, were asked on television programmes to “condemn the violence.” This trap question posed by journalists close to the government (as eloquently illustrated in Serge Halimi’s book “The New Watchdogs” (« Les nouveaux chiens de garde » in French) is highly complex because it compels one to choose between a seemingly peaceful political stance and supposedly violent activists. However, reality is not that simple. On one hand, the history of social struggles sadly demonstrates that social gains are not always achieved through peaceful debates. For example, in a previous article, we discussed to what extent the functioning of democracy in France could be biased in favour of political and economic power to the detriment of the majority of the population, using the example of the 2023 pension reform law. On the other hand, recent social conflicts have revealed numerous instances of serious violence by law enforcement, which in turn contribute to the normalization of violence by protesters. The “yellow vest” movement, for instance, was associated with a distressing record of protesters being severely injured by heavily armed police wielding weapons of war (such as grenades and rubber bullet rifles, which caused many demonstrators to lose an eye or a hand).
This has the dual effect of escalating the violence of the confrontations while producing media images of urban violence that symbolically undermine the social causes being defended, in favour of political power. However, it is not enough to simply refuse to “condemn the violence” to escape scrutiny. Jean-Luc Melenchon, a prominent figure on the French leftwing and a former regular presidential candidate, was one more time associated with an extremist reputation just for refusing to succumb to this simplistic line of reasoning. Just this week, Member of Parliament Aurore Bergé, representing the President’s party, referred to Melenchon’s party as “incendiary,” echoing the terminology developed by Jordane Bardella, a representative of the French far-right. These examples are part of an ongoing trend of normalising far-right discourse in the French political landscape. As we have just witnessed in the context of Nahel’s murder, this phenomenon marginalizes voices that are not aligned with the interests of the political and economic powers while normalizing the unquestionability of exercising power, by any means necessary, including lethal force.
In the face of this consensus, left-wing political forces are divided between a “socialist left”, which focuses on economic issues, and a “societal left” that also takes into account other aspects of power relations in society, such as struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, or validisme. This analytical element is crucial for understanding the dynamics of social events in France and explains why the struggles in suburban neighbourhoods and those of the “yellow vests,” for example, do not intertwine or mix much. From a sociological perspective, each of these struggles represents populations that have been deeply divided by French social history for a very long time. Getting a deep understanding of this phenomenon request to study the long-term history of the relationship between proletarian people in France and colonised people who came to France, especially since the world war to rebuild the country in exchange for a durable marginalization in the French suburbs.
The murder of Nahel is part of a long history of deaths linked to law enforcement in France, affecting individuals “perceived as Black or Arab.” According to a 2017 survey by the “Defender of Rights” independent organization, which surveyed 5,000 people, individuals from these communities are 20 times more likely to be stopped by the police than the rest of the population, and the chances of these encounters ending badly are also much higher. Some infamous examples remain etched in our memory. In 2005, the deaths of two minors, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, during a police stop, sparked significant riots in the Parisian suburbs. In 2016, the death of Adama Traoré due to asphyxiation, once again during a police stop, is often compared to that of George Floyd in the United States, with the key difference being that, to this day, despite prolonged legal proceedings initiated by his family, no convictions have been made against the police officers. Assa Traoré, Adama’s sister now recognized as a charismatic activist leader, was charged with defamation for stating that “the police killed her brother.” The lawyer defending the police officers was none other than the lawyer of Marine Le Pen, who has run for President several times representing the “National Rally” (RN), the main far-right party in France. However, several medical examinations have demonstrated a cause-and-effect relationship between Adama’s death and police control.
Unlike the death of Adama Traoré, but similar to that of George Floyd, Nahel’s murder was captured on video with a smartphone. This raises questions about the fragility of our society when it comes to delivering justice. If Nahel’s traffic stop hadn’t been filmed, the false testimony of the police officers might have biased the investigation, hastened a dismissal, and caused the case to be frozen forever. However, can we rely on the arbitrary presence of a camera at the scene of a police stop to ensure the safety of citizens and guarantee justice? This question is even more pressing as the right to film the police, considered by many observers as a citizen’s counter-power, is regularly debated in the French National Assembly. If such a law had been passed, Nahel’s murder could have been committed with complete impunity. Now, the death of Nahel also raises a question: how many murders could not have had the (relative) chance to be highlighted?
*Vincent Delbos-Klein, PhD, is a Paris-based researcher and has his doctorate in visual sociology. The views expressed are personal.