French City Outskirts Ablaze, Again: What's Different From 2005
Small, mobile and organized groups of young people full of violence and hatred for the police: an emerging movement a far cry from the "banlieues" riots in 2005.
PARIS — In recent years, social unrest in France has taken on new forms, and colors, almost relegating violence in the urban outskirts to the background. "Red caps", "yellow jackets" and "black blocs" made the headlines, while the banlieues have seemed almost quiet since the 2005 riots sparked by the deaths of two teenagers who were hiding from the police. Sure, since then there have been plenty of clashes, but no riots, even during the strict lockdown in 2020.
But the powder keg was still there, and an all-too-familiar spark lit the fuse: police violence against a young man from the urban periphery. On Tuesday, an officer shot dead Nahel M., an unarmed 17-year-old of North African descent at a traffic stop north of Paris. Unrest erupted, with no signs of abating: According to the French interior ministry, 667 arrests have been made across France so far, as violence continues in Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Pau, Toulouse and Lille. Rioters faced off with police, as buildings and vehicles were torched and stores looted.
But some things have changed since 2005. Images posted on social networks, for instance, acted as an accelerant. "It all took off very quickly and very powerfully", noted a ministerial adviser. A single video of the incident — showing officers shooting Nahel M., in his car at point blank — has been seen and shared millions of times, spreading anger and fanning fury.
Anti-police sentiment, too, has been on the rise. In the past ten years, police-youth relations have degenerated further. Any notion of respect is now long gone, only hatred remains. Police officers are seen as rival gangs, and clash with over-armed youth.
Betting on extreme repression
In recent years, the violence has become more structured. Groups of 30 to 50 people, coordinating through their phones, find weapons, gather in one place, pick a target, set it on fire, pick another one a quarter of an hour later, and so on.
Everything can become a target, as long as its destruction is spectacular.
They are mobile, fast and elusive. In 2005, standoffs saw the two sides pitted against each other for hours at a time. This is no longer the case — now it's more "catch me if you can."
Any place will do. Not just in disenfranchised outskirts, but also in quiet suburbs and Parisian neighborhoods. Everything can become a target, as long as its destruction is spectacular: symbols of the state, of course, but also modes of transport, schools and social services.
Protest in Nanterre on June 29 after the police shot down Nahel M., 17
Exceptional situation, exceptional response
After the first night of violence — on the morning after Nahel’s death — the authorities' reaction was very similar to the public's, pointing fingers at the police officer. But now that tough stance has switched from the police officer to the destructive youth.
This, the government thought, is an exceptional situation that requires an exceptional response. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin thus decided to deploy 40,000 police officers as well as elite, specialized tactical police units (BRI, Raid and GIGN) and air support.
Buses and trams were banned after 9 pm, curfews established in several areas: the powers that be are pulling out all the stops to quell the movement as quickly as possible. As one advisor put it, "It's all coming down to tonight."
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