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Macron is losing control of France. Thousands of arrests. Torched schools, community centres, city halls, sports complexes, post offices. Looting ranging from Lidl supermarkets to Apple Stores. Gendarmes and special forces brought in to patrol the streets at night, in addition to the beleaguered police force. Rising anger among shopkeepers clamouring for a curfew “or we’ll take matters into our hands”.
And, after five days’ rioting across France, a rising sentiment that the current situation is largely the result of almost a quarter century of craven governments neglecting essential law and order.
The viral video of a 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk seemingly listening to the policemen who stopped him in the street only to be shot point-blank, shocked a majority of France – not just the residents of the country’s ethnically diverse banlieues such as the one he lived and died in.
The 6,000-strong march reacting to it the following day, calling for “justice”, was equally seen as perfectly legitimate — until it escalated disastrously, in all-too-familiar fashion. Rioting, incendiary accusations (of state racism, that “they” want to kill “us”) and then literally incendiary acts: arson, senseless vandalism and destruction, from bus stop shelters to rows of shops, kindergartens, social housing. And theft, everywhere, of private and public property; indiscriminate; from a six-pack of semi-skimmed milk to watches, jewellery, Nike shoes, baby buggies.
When the riots broke out, I was at the Tocqueville Conversations, a conference on the Ukraine-Russian conflict. There eastern Europeans – Poles, Ukrainians, émigré Russians, together with Brits and French and Americans and Spaniards – watched in increasing disbelief such wanton destruction perpetrated in a country at peace. “They’re destroying the social compact which is essential for democracy”, Sławomir Dębski, the noted Polish historian and geostrategist, mused. We had been discussing the cost to Europe of rebuilding post-war Ukraine: the French among us started worrying about the cost of rebuilding parts of Marseille, Lens, Bordeaux, Paris.
Nihilistic destruction has been tolerated in France for something like a quarter century. It started around the millennium, under the Chirac presidency. Increasingly, the tail-end of demonstrations and marches – an old French tradition, codified and regulated (you need to declare your traditional May Day march or political demo to the Préfecture, complete with itinerary, timing and so on) started being disrupted by looters soon known as “casseurs”, because they broke shop windows as well as the stuff they could not steal. Police engaged less and less with them, mostly to avoid accusations of systemic brutality — until, exhausted, they hit back strongly, triggering a new cycle of catch-up brutality and repression.
If this sounds like bad policing, it’s because it is: the flics, too, badly paid and badly trained, are deeply demoralised by such inconsistent stop-and-go practices. By 2005, the cycle had gotten completely out of hand. The death of two young men, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who attempted to hide from police in a high-voltage electric transformer, and died electrocuted, triggered week-long riots. By then both narratives were entrenched, ready for use when US-inspired activists decided to recast France’s complex attitudes to ethnicity and citizenship into simplistic American ones.
President Emmanuel Macron is aware of the Black Lives Matter/George Floyd scenario. This is why he dithered: having waited three full days before sending out the gendarmerie, at the time of writing, he was still hesitant to impose a curfew or get the Army to patrol the streets.
Meanwhile the situation shows little sign of abating: le Président has had to cancel his state visit to Germany tomorrow. Control is rapidly slipping from his hands.