France begs rioters to go home after week of fiery street protests

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“Could you just go home?”

It was a weary-sounding question, directed by a middle-aged French woman at a gang of youths pushing past her, as a mass of defence shield-wielding riot-police chased after them.

It was past 1am on Sunday morning on the Champs Elysée – the tourist shoppers’ paradise in central Paris. The air was acrid with tear gas. Night number five of the street riots that have engulfed France since the killing of Nahel, a French Algerian teen, by a policeman on a Parisian housing estate.

My colleagues and I were filming the chaos all around when it struck me just how many people in France would love to ask the same question as the irritated lady.

Emmanuel Macron is fervently hoping the protesters – and tag-along vandals – give up and go home soon. For so many reasons.

His second term as French president has been peppered by civil unrest – over pension reform and now, Nahel’s death. It’s not exactly improving his popularity ratings.

Teacher Abdul – who lives on the same estate as Nahel, told me Mr Macron was fully to blame. His economic reforms are a disaster. France is crumbling – he told me – along with its education system.

Abdul was convinced disgruntled, unemployed young men from disadvantaged neighbourhoods were at least partly responsible for the street violence. They’re behind the scenes, pushing these teenagers, he said.

Abdul’s neighbours bring out their mobile phones each morning to photograph the smouldering remains of the latest riot-devastation. They also told us they wished the youngsters would stop. Student Celia said she worries the violence could end in a backlash against their whole community.

On Sunday night, the mums in Aulney, a working-class area near Paris, took to the streets themselves, waving banners calling for an end to the violence. President Macron appealed to the “mamans et papas” (the mums and dads) of the rioters last week to keep them at home and off social media, which, he said, allow “inflammatory material” to circulate.

The crisis is also weakening Macron politically, under fire from the political left and right over what best to do next. The left accuses him of neglecting the poor and the marginalised. The right demands he crack down harder on the violence, imposing a nationwide state of emergency.

But the optics would be tricky for the French president. He’d worry a crackdown could ignite an even greater rage on the streets. And further tarnish France’s international standing.

Mr Macron was forced by this crisis to leave last week’s summit of EU leaders where they discussed Europe’s biggest emergency: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And this weekend, the president had to cancel a much discussed state visit to important EU ally Germany – the first by a French president in 23 years.

While in the world of sport, questions are being asked as to whether France can be trusted to safely host international events like the world’s biggest cycling championship, the Tour de France. It concludes in three weeks on the Champs Elysée – a favourite spot for rioters, as we learned at the start of this article. The Rugby World Cup is due to begin in France in September.

As for the family of the dead teenager, they told me they ache for the rioters to go home. They’ve never called for acts of hate or theft or destruction in his name, they insist. In fact they worry the violence could distract from what they do want: justice. For them that means the police officer who killed Nahel, sentenced and imprisoned.

But talk to the protesters themselves and they don’t want to go home. A number say they feel unsafe at home because of regular confrontations with police. The UN has accused France’s security forces of systemic racism.

Activists like Assa Traore – whose brother died seven years ago following his arrest, told us being a young black or Arab man on a housing estate in France means being regularly exposed to police brutality and racial profiling. Until France recognises the problem is endemic, she says, there will be a lot more Nahels.

But the secretary general of one of France’s powerful police unions, Unité SGP, flatly denies the allegations of systemic racism.

Jean-Christophe Couvy says France is “not the US. We don’t have ghettos”, he told me. “Our forces represent France’s multicultural society with officers from all backgrounds. You’ll find maybe 1% of racists – like in the rest of society – but no more.”

Mr Couvy didn’t want to discuss the specifics of Nahel’s case as it’s an open investigation.

So I asked him how he would go about improving police relations with the estates.

“The best way forward is to return to a system of community policing in France, where we know each other by our first names.”

Right now in France, he told me, policing has become a box-ticking exercise of showing how many people each officer detains for questioning – to demonstrate he or she is working hard.

“The problem with that is it becomes like two opposing gangs on the streets: police vs the inhabitants of the estates.”

Back in January, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne launched a new action plan against racism but it’s been criticised for its silence on racial profiling by French police. Last summer, the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance released its sixth report on France, highlighting “little progress” on curtailing the use of ethnic profiling by law enforcement officers.

Not all the rioters on France’s streets were triggered by Nahel’s death, but those who are say loud protests are the only way people like them get their voices heard in France.

That’s why, they say, they can’t and shouldn’t go home.

Source: BBC 

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