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Blaze and blame in chaotic France

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Picture: Sebastien Salom-Gomis/AFP – French anti-riot police officers watch a truck burn in Nantes, western France on early July 1, 2023, four days after a 17-year-old man was killed by police in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron has announced measures including more police and urged parents to keep minors off the streets as he battled to contain nightly riots over a teenager’s fatal shooting by an officer in a traffic stop.

By Koffi M Kouakou

It’s been a bad week for France. On fire, again, the nation descended into social chaos. It was in turmoil, burning with racial overtones and violent riots facing hordes of police contingents. Streaming pictures, in the news media of aggressive looters breaking into shops, businesses and even police offices, were not pretty for a country that constantly reminds others of its impeccable reputation on human rights.

The devastating flames in Paris and other French cities remind us how volatile the situation has been and that things are going terribly wrong in France. The images were reminiscent of the riots of 2005, another tense moment in France tumultuous historical racial violence.

Indeed, it’s been a hot summer of discontent in France and its banlieues – the overcrowded and neglected suburbs popularly known as French ghettos – as the devastation of the burning flames add to the already hot climate temperatures.

As the blaze escalated into an inferno throughout France, the blame game began as politicians and experts fault failed immigration policies, immigrant parents and their descendants. But they also failed to highlight the boomeranging and exacerbating effects of European economic sanctions against Russia.

The brutal shooting dead of a 17-year-old in Paris by the police over a week ago sparked the violent protests across France that reopened the worsening wounds mainly amongst the nation’s immigrant population.

While the violence has subsided, the killing of the young Nahel Merzouk has raised numerous questions about France’s social integration system and its stability.

In addition to the inhuman treatment of minorities by the French police force and France’s immigration problem, president Emmanuel Macron’s leadership and influence are questioned. But the most important question points to what will be needed to turn the tide of these recurring violent riots and social crises in France?

Let’s examine the terrible impacts and consequences of the riots in France, the influence of its young leader, president Macron, his reputation, global prestige and his ability to rise to the social challenges facing his nation.

The consequences of the riots have been devastating – economically, socially, politically. The geographically of the damage is wide. At the heart of the blame is president Macron as the culprit and target of all failures to first address the violence and the legacy of social crises for young immigrant descendants in France.

Economically, the costs of the riots will be estimated in billions of euros. A preliminary estimate raised the alarm above the grim devastations in immigrant suburbs but also in central business districts in Paris, Amiens, Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Pau, Strasbourg among many more cities.

I shall spare you the shocking aftermath statistics of the riots. However, the immediate economic damages of property and vandalised assets will have a significant impact on the lives of the banlieues and affect a drastic drop in tourism levels in France, especially in Paris which is known for its attraction to millions of visitors during the summer every year.

Socially, President Macron’s image has been attacked by immigrant and diaspora groups and leftist political parties who are staunchly social conscious and seized this crisis to push their long ignored social reform agendas.

France has a serious immigration problem as most European nations do. On paper, race neutrality is an ideal that seems politically correct. In reality, it has been a pipedream. Recurrent racial incidents and police brutality make a mockery of the famous French motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to ring hollow.

The French are confronted with a colossal hangover mindset change challenge about racial equality and equity.

Despite government long and deep-seated denial, many believe institutional racism and increasing police brutality in France are the catalysts that continue to feed and fuel the widespread anger of violent riots in France.

The death of Merzouk, a recent event, is part of the long and recurring theme of police racial bias and brutality against non-whites in France. It’s a national disgrace and humiliation.

Suddenly again, France, a country renowned for upholding human rights, friendlier immigration policies and its cultural diversity, has become notorious for its disregard for immigrants and their descendants. Its evolving and heightening societal prejudices, institutional racism, subtle non-Whites and Eurocentric preference lens are creating social crises of neglect and an inferno of zealotry.

But the consequences of its changing demographic and its impacts on French society should awaken French leadership to find ways to accommodate immigrants to a kinder and gentler liberty, equality et fraternity motto.

Many immigrants live in suburbs, bearing the brunt of poor housing, educational facilities, extreme poverty and enormous unemployment burden.

Reflecting the lingering consequences of centuries of colonial legacies, historical injustices ring true at the bottom of the hierarchy of suffering in these suburbs.

While the blame game doesn’t help to solve social crises, it tells a lot about the incredibly failed policies of successive French governments’ wilful blindness to the plight of immigrants and their descendants in France and in Europe generally.

The social and cultural impacts of the riots on France and in particular on the immigrant population and diasporas will last for years to come.

Politically, at home and geopolitically abroad, Macron’s leadership and influence are on the line. His influence in France has dwindled considerably. So, is his popularity and approval ratings are plummeting sharply. They are at their lowest levels. Some believe they are in tatters as his popularity sinks to a lowest ever since he was elected five years ago with great acclaim.

In fact, the recent racial police killing of the teenager have made matters worse for him. While recent polls by Ifop-Fiducial for Paris Match and Sud Radio presented that 33 percent are satisfied with Macron’s performance as president, this low-third rating is less convincing for a president who struggled to win a second term.

He is now perceived negatively, negligent, and weak. He has been berated for not taking urgent responsibility and accountability when he was seen attending an Elton John concert in Paris while his country was burning until he set up a crisis unit.

He first went wrong with his police crackdown and high-handed approach to the year-long yellow vest protests and pension reforms. He is now seen as an authoritarian man with a strong penchant for presidential executive privilege abuses.

Earlier on the first day of the riots, while Macron rightly called the shooting of Nahel “inexcusable” and “inacceptable”, he blamed the wanton use of social media by rioters and the parents of the youth involved in the riots. He even suggested some authoritarian social media restrictions. But many believe Macron is out of touch with the social challenges of his country as he panders to the socially well-offs.

The ultimate question still rings. Can president Macron, a constitutional lame duck, who only has three years on his second tenure find long-term solutions to the social crises that besieged France so often?

To turn the tide, the French must address the unavoidable – an equitable and just society for all who live in France. More specifically, successive French governments must urgently invest massively in the development of the banlieues.

Nevertheless, with the remaining years of his presidency, he could demonstrate some decisiveness and boldly use his presidential powers to enact practical solutions for the banlieues in France.

But will he? I doubt it. And many keen observers agree that he will accomplish very little by then.

The chaos will be back. The banlieues will burn again. Because it’s cyclical. It’s political and systemic in design.

President Macron is a “new face to an ugly system,” said Yasser Louati, a political analyst and head of the Committee for Justice & Liberties in France, when interviewed by Rania Khalek on Break Threw News recently.

In his insightful biography of Emmanuel Macron, titled The French Exception, Adam Plowright reminds us that he is an extraordinary risk for France. He was right. So far and although re-elected, Macron has not convinced the French that his leadership, both in style and substance, has helped to strengthen the gains of social security and French sovereignty in the world. The French are still longing for a grand and modern leader that will give them again that sense of grandeur and international respect.

It might take another grand revolution to overthrow the insouciant elites that govern France as it happened on July 14, 1789 with the Bastille revolution. Incidentally, France will celebrate its independence day on July 14th. This summer’s violent riots coincided with that anniversary.

France tumultuous racial crises will continue to heighten if each wave of immigrants is not dealt with in homegrown countries of immigrants where out-of-control poverty, hopelessness, homelessness and crime fester.

But with every crisis, there is an opportunity. France could partner with China in Africa, especially in francophone speaking countries.

Beijing’s enormous economic leverage, in partnership with France’s cultural legacy, could drastically help to design sustainable win-win development projects on the back of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative that can stabilise migrant country economies and eradicate the appalling effects of the three horsemen of the Afropocalypse – poverty, unemployment and inequality – that fuel migration to Europe.

Koffi M Kouakou, Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre of Africa China, University of Johannesburg