After a police officer in France shot dead unarmed 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk during a traffic stop in Paris last week, two fundraisers were set up. One, to support the teen’s mother. The other, for the family of the police officer who shot him.
By early Wednesday morning, the fundraiser for the police officer had raised a final total of more than €1.6 million ($1.7 million), while that for Nahel had topped €400,000 ($450,000). More than 85,000 people had donated to support the police officer, while just over 21,000 had donated to support Nahel.
What explains this divergence? And what does it tell us about French politics?
The fundraiser for the police officer, who has been charged with voluntary homicide, was set up by French media personality and former politician Jean Messiha.
Having previously stood as a candidate for the National Rally – the far-right party led by Marine Le Pen – Messiha later worked as spokesperson for the party of Eric Zemmour, another far-right candidate in last year’s presidential election, whose platform was more extreme than Le Pen’s.
French lawmakers have criticized the fundraiser and questioned the motives of the organizers.
“Everyone can express their feelings and contribute to a fund… But I think, in this case, that it doesn’t go in the direction of appeasement,” Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said in an interview with France Inter on Monday.
“I ask myself if behind all this there isn’t an instrumentalization (of the killing),” he added.
Despite the criticism, host website GoFundMe had refused to remove the campaign.
On Tuesday evening, Messiha announced on Twitter that the fundraiser would close at midnight local time (6 p.m. ET), but urged that its supporters continued the “national momentum” the campaign had built.
The killing of Nahel, who was of Algerian origin, and the riots his death incited, provoked a “typical, traditional far-right” reaction, according to Philippe Marliere, a professor of French politics at University College London.
Many far-right sympathizers took the protests as proof that the rioters “disrespect France, they hate it, they don’t want to integrate, they’re riff-raffs,” and as another example of how “France’s multiculturalism has failed,” Marliere told CNN.
But while this rhetoric proliferated online, the fundraiser itself used more measured language.
“Support for the family of the Nanterre police officer, Florian.M, who did his job and is now paying a high price. MASSIVELY support him and our police forces!” it read.
This language “is designed to appeal to a much broader audience than typical far-right voters. This sort of statement could appeal to a majority of French people – and most of them would never contemplate voting for the National Rally,” Marliere said. The fundraiser is hence helping to bring the politics of the far right into the mainstream, he added.
Le Pen also tempered her rhetoric in response to this crisis, in what Marliere said was an attempt to appeal to more middle-of-the-road voters. Rather than capitalizing on the traditional far-right rallying calls of “riots, ethnic minorities, rebelling against public authority, the police, burning down public buildings,” and more, she has adopted a more moderate tone than she has in the past, and far more so than Zemmour.
While Zemmour called the rioters “scum” and called for some of their requests for French nationality to be refused, Le Pen spoke more sympathetically about the victim. “The death of a young man of 17 cannot leave anyone indifferent,” she said in a tweet.
According to Marliere, Le Pen’s “low-key” response to the crisis is part of a “long-term strategy of coming across no longer as a far-right politician, but as someone who eventually – in four years’ time – could be seen as a credible replacement for Macron.”
Since Le Pen lost the presidential election to Emmanuel Macron in 2022, French politics has grown increasingly fractious. Macron faced huge protests in March and April over his controversial pension reforms, and there is a sense that he has struggled to regain his domestic footing since then.
Many have noted that Le Pen’s decision to temper her rhetoric echoes that of Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni. Both politicians, attempting to cast a sheen of electability over their far-right parties, have used a more moderate tone to appeal to the mainstream.
“The Meloni strategy is very much what Le Pen is trying to follow in France,” Marliere said.
“This is politics: You instrumentalize a political event, a tragic political and social event, and you try to score political points with it.”
But, for the message to resonate, it has to be grounded in the public’s experience.
Joseph Downing, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations who has lived in Marseille for more than a decade, says he has witnessed the decline of security in the city, which has left whole areas virtually unpoliced.
According to Downing, the success of the fundraiser for the police officer shows “the key reason why Le Pen, and to a lesser extent Zemmour, were both successful in the presidential election campaign, because they spoke about security.”
“If you speak to people on the ground, they constantly complain about the deterioration of safety in French cities. This has been something that’s been taking place over the last decades,” Downing told CNN.
In some areas of France, police simply “don’t exist,” he said. In their place, gangs armed with Kalashnikovs have been allowed to proliferate.
“Nanterre (the Paris suburb where Nahel was killed) is a good example of this. The police themselves are scared. And the police know, in Nanterre, in Clichy-sous-Bois, in the northern quarters of Marseille, there are people that are armed. And there are people that are armed with bigger guns than they have,” Downing said.
While the absence of police is felt most keenly in Marseille, Downing says the feeling of insecurity has started to trickle into Paris.
“On French voters’ minds – and it’s not being addressed unfortunately by the mainstream – is the question of a banal, day-to-day insecurity,” Downing said.
He thinks the police officer’s fundraiser reveals some of these feelings of insecurity. The riots that rocked several French cities were a short burst of anguish whose peak has passed, according to comments made Tuesday by Macron. But the fundraiser was growing at a rapid rate before Messahi’s announcement, pulling in more than €500,000 (€545,000) since Monday afternoon.
The difference between the two fundraisers also shows the different levels of organization across the French political spectrum. Those who took to the streets to protest police violence “might use Snapchat, but they wouldn’t be aware of a GoFundMe,” said Downing. Meanwhile, the cause of law and order has appealed to the “more engaged” right. “The right is much more mobilized and is much richer generally in France,” he said.
Having faced two huge waves of protests this year, Macron has been left weakened. While the nature of the two crises were very different, both have contributed to the growing image of a president detached from his people, who feels more comfortable before a global audience than a domestic one.
“It’s easier to grandstand on the international stage than it is to try to sort out very complex, intractable problems at home,” Downing told CNN.
CNN’s Joseph Ataman, Aurore Laborie, Xiaofei Xu and Niamh Kennedy contributed reporting.