Editor’s Note: Keith Magee is a theologian, political adviser and social justice scholar. He is chair and professor of practice in social justice at Newcastle University and visiting professor in cultural justice at University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He also leads Black Britain and Beyond, a social platform and think tank and is the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
On Tuesday morning in a suburb west of Paris, a 17-year old French driver of Algerian descent was shot dead at point-blank range by a police officer for failing to comply during a traffic stop.
The incident has sparked three nights of rioting across France, with some 40,000 police officers deploying overnight Thursday into Friday morning and hundreds of people arrested. The officer has been detained and charged with voluntary homicide.
President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday that the killing of the boy, named as Nahel, was “inexplicable and inexcusable.” That it was inexcusable was beyond doubt, as was evident in the video of the tragedy. The local prosecutor also concluded that there was no legal justification for the shooting.
But I am less certain that Nahel’s death was inexplicable. I see at least two clear explanations: the national refusal to face up to institutional racism and the ambiguity of France’s laws governing the use of firearms by police during traffic stops.
If this tragedy had taken place in the UK or US, media headlines would have featured the victim’s ethnicity front and center. But because Nahel died in France, one key contributing factor – the color of Nahel’s skin – has been almost entirely ignored in the initial barrage of domestic news reports and commentary.
There have been some notable exceptions. Interviewed this week on Sud Radio, Marine Tondelier of Europe Écologie-Les Verts – the Geen Party – denounced what she called “the Americanization of the police in France,” adding “I have never seen a non-racialized [i.e., “White”] person get killed for refusing to comply.”
On Thursday, prominent anti-racism campaigner Rokhaya Diallo told BFMTV that French police are “institutionally racist.” However, by even mentioning race both risked immediate backlash. That’s because in France, despite a wave of anti-racism protests in 2020 inspired by the murder of George Floyd, the issue of race remains largely taboo. Discussions about race that happen every day in the US rarely occur there, at least in the official discourse.
France has long claimed to be color blind. Article 1 of its Constitution guarantees “the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion” – in other words, individual differences are an entirely private matter.
The state purports to see only citizens, all of whom are presumed to share the Republic’s universal values. A 1978 law goes even further, prohibiting the collection or processing of personal data revealing “racial or ethnic origins, political, philosophical or religious opinions.” This means that systemic racism in French society is rendered invisible.
France’s significant population of immigrants, mainly from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, and their descendants have complained for decades that every part of their lives is blighted by discrimination. But when you collect no data whatsoever on how many people of color are excluded by the education system, how many are unemployed, how many live in poverty, how many are underserved by housing and healthcare services, and how many are victims of racial profiling by the police, it is easy to deny that such discrimination exists.
As a result, while racism in society is occasionally recognized – a 2022 report by the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights estimated that 1.2 million people a year were likely “victims of at least one racist, anti-Semitic or xenophobic attack” in France, a country of 68 million people – such attitudes tend to be blamed on random individuals – bad apples who deviate from the norm. Accusations of institutional or systemic racism fall on deaf ears. And who can prove otherwise?
Racism, wherever it occurs, is a curse. As a Black man who has lived both in the United States and in the United Kingdom, I am more likely to be subjected to police brutality. I know this not just because my experience and that of other people who look like me tells me so – but because the data says so. And if I am to face injustice, I want at very least to be able to quantify it, examine it and demand that it be eradicated.
I want to vote for representatives who vow to fight racism, and then hold them accountable by measuring their success or failure. None of this is currently possible in France.
In reality, the myth of the colorblind French Republic amounts to the state-level gaslighting of ethnic minorities, and the nation’s victims of systemic racism know it. Many people of immigrant, often Black or North African, heritage live in the “cités”, or suburbs, on the edges of France’s major towns where high levels of economic and social deprivation have created not just a widespread sense of despair, but anger at the injustice of hidden racial inequality.
Racist treatment, particularly of young men of color, at the hands of the police exacerbates this anger, and traffic stops have become a flash point.
In 2017 a new law introduced in the wake of terrorist attacks gave police greater powers to use firearms if a driver failed to comply during a traffic stop and officers felt the individual might go on to harm people in the path of the vehicle.
Campaigners like Nanterre parliamentary representative Sabrina Sebaihi have decried the ambiguity of this law, pointing out the dramatic increase in fatal traffic stops since its introduction. A Reuters investigation found that 13 people died at the hands of police this way in 2022 while Nahel is the third victim this year, stating, “the majority of the victims since 2017 were Black or of Arab origin.”
The reaction over the past few days and nights to Nahel’s death shows, perhaps better than any graphs or charts ever could, just how serious racial tensions in the suburbs have now become.
In a regrettable explosion of violence, as well as looting, rioters have deliberately targeted symbols of the Republic – town halls and schools have been set alight, while police officers and firefighters have come under attack. A 6,000-strong march through Nanterre on Thursday began as a dignified homage in Nahel’s memory led by his mother, but ended in yet more clashes with law enforcement.
The French government should urgently heed calls from Sebaihi and others to clarify the circumstances in which police officers can lawfully use firearms if a driver fails to comply during a traffic stop, and improve training for law enforcement personnel.
Until systemic racism within the French police and the rest of society can be investigated, quantified, and addressed, the names of the poorest, brownest suburbs will continue to be used as code for the racial injustice and tension that cannot be named – and those places will continue to be tinderboxes. And whenever France’s suburbs explode, as they are doing this week, the only victors are likely to be the far right, who will seize the opportunity to sow yet more racial division and anti-immigrant hatred for electoral gain.
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The French Republic’s motto of ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity’ is an inspiration to democratic nations around the world, including my homeland of the United States. To see those values undermined by a failure to investigate and address systemic racism, leaving so many of its citizens feeling unprotected, alienated, and unseen by the state is not only sad, it’s inexcusable. Let’s hope the tragedy of young Nahel’s death at the very least sparks a meaningful debate about systemic racism and discrimination in France and how it might be overcome for the sake of every French citizen.
We may never know for certain whether Nahel’s race was a factor in his killing. But surely, if it is taboo to even ask the question, something is very wrong.