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Protests Burn Thousands of Cars Demanding Justice for Nahel

Last Tuesday, French police murdered 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in broad daylight during a traffic stop. Initiating another phase of class struggle in France, people across the country are taking up radical methods to demand justice.

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Last Tuesday, French police murdered 17-year-old Nahel M. in broad daylight in Nanterre, a town on the western outskirts of Paris. The teenager, of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was shot point blank at the steering wheel while driving through a traffic check. Huge protests have erupted throughout France against this racist police violence, demanding a thorough investigation and justice for Nahel.

Demonstrations  in cities such as Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Nice, and Strasbourg — and particularly in the working-class neighborhoods — have been explosive. Protesters as young as 13 have set fire to cars and trash, broken into stores, set off fireworks to battle the police, and even rammed a burning car into the home of Nanterre’s mayor. Police have responded with tear gas, gunshots, brutal beatings, and mass arrests. Fury over the killing of Nahel has resulted in increasingly radical methods by demonstrators, declaring that enough is enough. 

Protests and outrage over the state violence and racist murder have even spread overseas to former and present-day colonies of France, from Réunion and French Guiana to Martinique and Belgium — a clear example of how crisis in imperialist countries can open up more opportunity for class struggle in the colonial periphery.

In response to the unrest, the government of Marseille has banned demonstrations, including the scheduled Pride celebrations. Despite the ban, masses of people gathered anyway, expressing their solidarity with the families of the victims of police violence and declaring “no cops at Pride”. Below are videos from Pride demonstrations in Marseille and Grenoble.

Macron rapidly deployed militarized police officers to repress the protests — from 9,000 the first night to over 45,000 by Saturday, with some even being called back from vacation. French President Emmanuel Macron, Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, and many other officials are calling for “peace” and “calm” in an attempt to de-radicalize the movement.

France’s Interior Ministry announced that over 1,300 demonstrators had been arrested on Friday night alone, including many teenagers. Since protests commenced on Tuesday night, some 2,400 persons have been arrested across the country. While reports have claimed hundreds of police injuries, no figures have yet been released on civilian injuries. 

France’s police union, meanwhile, released a nakedly racist statement, which declares “In the face of these savage hordes, it’s no longer enough to ask for calm, it must be imposed! … Our colleagues, like the majority of citizens, are fed up with following the orders of these violent minorities.”

As a result of the uprising, President Macron, who has blamed social media and video games for the unrest, has postponed a planned state visit to Germany. Minister Darmanin said that the government would not declare a state of emergency, in an effort to give the impression of control over the situation. These uprisings come on the heels of the massive mobilizations against Macron’s unpopular pension reforms. Although that fight may have receded — thanks in no small part to the union bureaucracy’s conciliatory approach — the protests over Nahel’s killing show that there’s no return to normal for Macron, and his regime’s crises are far from resolved. 

Almost thirty years after the release of the groundbreaking film La Haine (1995) which revealed the realities of racist police brutality against North Africans in Paris, the same violent dynamics remain in communities ravaged by the legacy of French colonialism and ongoing imperialism. The current wave of class struggle is part of a long history of resistance against racist police brutality and impunity in France, especially those from North African and Sub-Saharan African migrant communities. In 2016, Adama Traoré was killed while in police custody on his 24th birthday. His sister Assa Traoré, a special education teacher, took up the fight to demand truth and justice for his murder despite ongoing attempts to silence her and her family. The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, sparked by the brutal police murder of George Floyd, gave new life to this struggle in France and around the world

Assa Traoré spoke during the protests for Nahel: “We continue to march to denounce all forms of police violence — the death of Nahel and all the others.”

The racist police murders of Nahel Merzouk, Adama Traoré, and countless others cannot be separated from the repression of the wider class struggle phenomena in France over the last several years. “The police is at the service of the government. They will never be just,” said Nabila, a mother from Nanterre who participated in a protest on Thursday. As Nabila alluded to, the primary function of the police is to protect private property and the interests of the capitalist state by unleashing racist brutality and terror.

During the mass mobilizations against the pension reforms earlier this year, members of Révolution Permanente connected the attacks on working people to the hyper-exploitation of migrant communities and xenophobic laws that make it easier to deport migrants.

Oppressed communities cannot take up this fight alone. The murderous violence against communities of color are inextricably linked to the attacks on the working class, and the deterioration of social and economic conditions under neoliberalism and under the Macron government. Social movements, labor movements, and the Left must unite to support the young people rising up against state racism and police murders. Labor leaders, in particular, need to break with their passivity and with the conciliatory approach they employed during the pension reform protests, which served only to bolster the French regime and defang the movement in the streets. 

A united response from the labor movement can help defeat the police repression and demand the immediate release of all protesters. But it must go further by linking the struggle against police violence and racism to a broader program to repeal France’s racist laws, fight for better living and working conditions, and defend public services in working-class neighborhoods.

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Emma Lee

Emma is a special education teacher in New York City.

Otto Fors

Otto is a college professor in the New York area.

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