Social Justice

Between the Republic and the police: the fire

The racist murder of a teenager by a policeman and the riots that ensued show that the line between the right and the far right is blurring. France is at a tipping point towards authoritarianism.
In recent years, the line between the right and the extreme-right has been blurred by a series of political measures and attitudes, the recent pension law reform being just one example. This has led some, in France and beyond, to consider the “illiberal” nature of the current powers and the authoritarian turn it is taking.
In recent years, the line between the right and the extreme-right has been blurred by a series of political measures and attitudes, the recent pension law reform being just one example. This has led some, in France and beyond, to consider the “illiberal” nature of the current powers and the authoritarian turn it is taking.

Interviewed on 1 July by the Toulouse regional daily La Dépêche, Jean-Pierre Havrin, a former high-ranking police officer and former head of the police officers' union, acknowledged that the police have become the enemy of the people and identifies this as an abnormal situation – which it is. He advocates a vision of the police in the service of citizens and a model of true public service, an institution of proximity that creates bonds with the population. This model was abandoned by Nicolas Sarkozy when he was Minister of the Interior during Jacques Chirac's presidency in 2003. Two years later, in 2005, the first major national revolt of the working-class neighbourhoods broke out after two teenagers, Zyed and Bouna, chased by the police, were electrocuted to death when they took refuge in an electrical converter. The revolt lasted twenty nights and the reasons for clear: poverty, urban ghettos, lack of a future, exclusion due to growing state racism. Eighteen years later, history is repeating itself. The causes and consequences are the same, except that the causes have worsened. All of them.

A few days ago, in an incident that was filmed and circulated immediately, Nahel, a 17-year-old boy, was killed by a policeman during a police stop. The footage shows two policemen standing next to a vehicle, one of them pointing his gun at Nahel. When the car suddenly moves forward, a gunshot is heard, and the car ends up crashing a few metres away. In the recording, the shooter is heard saying: “I'll put a bullet in your head!”, while his companion says: “Shoot him! Shoot him!”, as the car starts moving. According to the young man's mother, Nahel's head showed significant side injuries. In other video footage, the officers are seen striking him with several blows, pistol butts according to Fouad, the passenger in the car. It matters little whether this caused his foot to slip off the brake pedal or whether he wanted to flee: like all young people in these neighbourhoods, he knew that as a boy of North African or sub-Saharan origin – like Alhoussein, 19, the young man killed on 14 June in Angoulême – he was at serious risk of being killed. He knew that the officers would invariably claim to have fired to save their lives and not be run over. He knew that in the eyes of most police officers, the life of a young man from the working-class neighbourhoods is not worth much. He may not have known the statistics nor that there had been one death per month in the same circumstances so far this year, but he had a practical understanding of the situation.

That understanding did not save his life, but the recording of the scene has produced definitive and retrospective proof. The video and its dissemination, legal only because the French Constitutional Council dropped an article of the gag law that sought to prohibit them, have created suspicion, and a little more than that, around the multiplication of similar cases since 2017. That year, one of the many “security” laws called for by police unions relaxed the rules on the use of service weapons in cases of “refusal to obey”. The images did even more because they also exposed police reports which, immediately after the death of yet another young man during a police stop, circulated the usual account of the policeman “in danger of his life”, except this time contradicted by the video. More than that, broadcasts of the story accompanied by passionate justifications of the police's course of action on major mainstream extreme right-wing radio and TV stations owned by the billionaire Bolloré were similarly unmasked. The systematic rhetoric of laying all the blame on the victim and, in this case, inventing a serious criminal record, immediately denied by Nahel's family's lawyers, could still be heard on these channels' “news” broadcasts and talk shows, even after the video's mass dissemination. The racist system of justifying violence against young people in the slums is what has emerged clearest of all. The crowning moment came in a statement from France Police, an association created by Le Pen's party which presents itself as a trade union: “Congratulations to the colleagues who opened fire on a young 17 year old criminal. By neutralising his vehicle, they have protected their lives and those of other road users. The only people responsible for the death of this thug are his parents, incapable of educating their son”.

These hateful words went too far, and prompted condemnation from the minister of the interior, who quickly recognised the political danger. But what has truly provoked the uprising of all these young people has been the cumulative experience of a police perceived as an enemy that is allowed to do anything. The short video encapsulates the evidence. So, although the burning of cars and buildings night after night may generate spectacular images, they are nothing new.

What is new and much more disturbing is something else, another statement, this time from two major police unions. And this one deserves to be quoted in full and commented on:

"Enough is enough!

Faced with these savage hordes, calling for a return to calm is not enough: it must be imposed! Re-establishing republican order and neutralising those arrested are the only two political actions that must be carried out at the moment. In the face of such abuses, the police family must show solidarity. Our colleagues, like most citizens, are fed up with suffering the dictates of these violent minorities. This is no time for trade union action but for fighting against this 'vermin'. Submitting, capitulating and giving them the pleasure of laying down their arms are not solutions equal to the gravity of the situation. All means must be deployed to re-establish the rule of law as soon as possible. Once the rule of law has been re-established, we know that we will have to go back to the chaos that has persisted for decades. For these reasons, Alliance Police Nationale and UNSA Police assume their responsibility and hereby warn the government that when this is over, we will be proactive. If no concrete measures are taken towards the legal protection of the policeman, an adapted penal response, and substantial additional resources, the police will assess how much consideration they are given.

Today the police are at their battle stations because we are at war.

Tomorrow, we will be engaged in resistance and the government will need to become aware of this.”

This is a clearly seditious communiqué that inverts the relationship and turns the police into victims, in clear consonance with the media discourse, but also with the discourse of the Ministry of the Interior for years now. The proximity of the leadership of these two unions to the minister, the fact that their agenda, which clearly comes from Le Pen's programme, has been taken seriously by those currently in power (who have gratified them on many issues), should help to understand this communiqué as an endorsement of the Minister of the Interior. He is Gérald Darmanin and, in any other country, he would have resigned upon hearing of the youngster's assassination. But not him, perhaps because he is rumoured to have a shot at becoming the next Prime Minister. Portraying the character would require too much space (those who understand French can read this profile published by the independent outlet Blast) but suffice to say that during the last presidential election campaign he told Marine Le Pen that she had gone soft and that he was much tougher than she was.

The threatening statement did not elicit much of a reaction from the government or the presidency of the Republic. What is worth noting however, is how the vocabulary of war, civil war, the dehumanisation of certain citizens and the call for order in the face of chaos are combined with a call to re-establish “the rule of law”, making use of the same inversion of language as in Orwell's novel 1984, and to which the president of the Republic has so accustomed us. For instance, in March 2019, Macron stated: “Don't talk about repression or police violence, these words are unacceptable in a state governed by the rule of law.” This statement has confronted the government and the entire political class with a choice. Not in electoral terms between Macron on the one hand and Le Pen on the other, a game that has worked twice so far, even if it may be repeated going by a recent bombshell dropped by the former president of the National Assembly when he spoke of amending the Constitution to allow a third consecutive term. No, it is actually worse because the contrast between what the extreme right is and what it is not has become increasingly blurred. And not just because Marine Le Pen, supported by much of the media and the “normal” right-wing politicians who borrow her agenda, protests when she is labelled extreme right-wing. A strategy used by all extreme right-wingers, to the point of ridicule of late. In recent years, the line has been blurred by a series of political measures and attitudes, the recent pension law reform being just one example. This has led analysts, in France and beyond, to consider the “illiberal” nature of the current power and the authoritarian turn it is taking.

Unfortunately, there is evidence that the government and the majority of the right and extreme right political class have already made their choice. In 2019, during the yellow vests movement, a protester who boxed the riot police with his bare hands sparked great enthusiasm among the demonstrators. This occurred in a context where the police were cracking skulls and bursting eyes every single day (among them was Nahel's murderer, decorated by chief of police Lallement who, when reproached for the violence of his troops by a female protester, told her: “We are not on the same side, madam”). The boxing protestor's name was Christophe Dettinger. When the latter turned himself in to the police, people contributed to an online collection that raised 145,000 euros in two days. The government and its allies cried foul, condemned the man's unacceptable violence and blocked the collection. Now, everyone is keeping quiet when a collection has already raised more than 600,000 euros for the policeman who cold-bloodedly killed young Nahel. Those same people are keeping quiet.

Making it clear that in this case murder is not considered violence, threatening the government with sedition in the name of upholding the rule of law, reversing the roles of victims and executioners, excluding a large part of the population from what constitutes “the people”, and all this in the name of the republican order, of the Republic, raises an uncomfortable but central question: Who are the people of the Republic and who decides or gets to say so? The current revolt, just as the Black Lives Matters movement, despite efforts to depoliticise them in every possible way by emphasising the burned and looted shops, and not the police stations and town halls, can not only clearly be read as a claim to being part of the people, but also as a revindication of having the right to proclaim being a part. The authors of this police statement and those who do not condemn state their answer to this clearly, and the answer is simply racist, and also classist, as we have seen for some months now. They don't mind the police state, or the authoritarian state, as long as it is dressed up in the fraudulent banner of the rule of law. It has been years since a rapper denounced the fallacious rhetoric of privatising the Republic in service of a racist and neo-liberal agenda, and of calling the youth of the slums “scum” (racaille).The issue of racism in the police is not a matter of individual opinion – not just because, more than an opinion, racism is a crime but because racism is a system. The fact that three quarters of serving police officers are prepared to vote for Marine Le Pen in the next elections is just as serious as the government's denial that there is no racism in the police. This systematic nature is illustrated by surveys on racism in the institution that show the extent to which the everyday, naturalised and uncomplexed use of racist words excludes those who are not racist because socialising partly involves partaking in sharing racist opinions or nicknames. Surveys also show that the hierarchy does not fight against such discourse (and often feeds or encourages it).

Denying the existence of racism in the ranks of the French police works exactly like denying police violence: it creates a prohibition to talk about them. And, if this prohibition is not respected, the citizen or politician who dares to affirm that they are real is faced with a response in the shape of a serious accusation: that of being outside the republican order, of being an enemy of order, a disaffected person.

This all paints a rather ugly picture which is perhaps best summed up by Swiss sociologist Jean-François Bayart, who sees the country at the turning point towards authoritarianism: “Yes, France is turning over. The social explosion in the suburbs will undoubtedly accelerate the movement. But perhaps we should remember the IPCC experts' definition of 'tipping point': 'The degree of change in the properties of a system at which the system in question reorganises itself, often abruptly, and does not return to its initial state even if the factors causing the change are removed'.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Toufik-de-Planoise

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François Godicheau
Tim Swillens
Original article🔗
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