The Uprisings in France and the Specter of the Yellow Vests

Juan Chingo

July 11, 2023

The French riots, after the police murder of Nahel Merzouk, illustrate the prerevolutionary potential of the situation.

On June 27, the French police murdered Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old high school student of Algerian origin from the Parisian suburb of Nanterre. The event triggered a widespread uprising in working-class neighborhoods.1Translator’s note: The term quartiers populaires is generally translated as “working-class neighborhoods” or “low-income neighborhoods,” though this does not quite capture the meaning. In France, the term refers to the suburbs of big cities, characterized by housing projects, intense precarity, and a high density of immigrant families, largely from countries previously colonized by the French state. The epicenter of this uprising was the outskirts of Paris, but it quickly spread to the rest of France, mobilizing poor and working-class youth and spreading far beyond the Paris region. The murder, filmed by a witness, turned into a sort of George Floyd moment for France, becoming the spark that ignited an already-explosive situation.

This uprising began while the embers of the pensions battle were still smoldering from earlier this year, opening a new crisis at the highest levels of the state, both in terms of governability and policing after the trauma of the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement. The uprising has even further weakened President Emmanuel Macron, who had not yet regained his strength after the costly victory over the protest movement against his pension reform. These elements confirm the prerevolutionary potential of the phase opened in 2016, with increasingly frequent tremors. They highlight the terminal crisis of the Fifth Republic, an exhausted regime that increasingly cannot “peacefully” resolve the tensions that shape the situation in France.

Meanwhile, the union alliance Intersyndicale, with its institutional, reformist, and class-conciliatory perspective, is leading us to a dead end and new defeats — even as we face the threat of new, ever more open and brutal Bonapartist and reactionary attempts to reassert the imperialist state’s authority. More than ever, we need to unify the struggles of the working class to prevent our strength and fighting spirit from being scattered in sectoral or isolated confrontations, however important they may be. This strategic issue will determine the main contours of the country’s political situation in the months and years to come.

Reasons for the Uprising

The scale and intensity of the uprising that swept through these precarious and working-class neighborhoods from the end of June to the beginning of July far surpassed anything seen during the 2005 uprising, which lasted almost four weeks after the murder of Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré. According to the Association des maires de France, 150 town halls and municipal buildings were attacked from June 27 to July 5 after the murder of Nahel. This is the highest number of “urban riots” recorded in France since the 1980s. The clashes and what the media described as “looting” affected both working-class neighborhoods and the city centers in places like Marseille and Lyon. In response, Macron’s government mobilized 45,000 police and gendarmes, as well as special units deployed such as the BRI (Investigation and Intervention Brigade or Anti-gang Brigade) and the GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group), a police response not seen in nearly two decades.

The rage that has shaken France is driven by two central elements. The first element is a mistrust toward and even hatred for the state. This was best described by the left-wing mayor of Corbeil-Essonnes, Bruno Piriou, who, as Le Monde explains,

spent nights following the movements of groups through the many CCTV cameras. Some 300 individuals in total out of a population of 52,000. … “I saw very organized young people [he says], getting ready, all dressed alike. There was even a group of seven individuals dressed in white overalls and big glasses to use a disc saw and cut the poles where the cameras are installed.” On the walls, graffiti tags tell of the desire to seize power. “La loi, c’est nous” (We are the law), “A mort les porcs” (Death to pigs), “Un keuf bon, c’est un keuf mort” (The only good cop is a dead cop). “There’s a section of youth who are taking action to attack what they see as the established order.”

This desire by the youth to “attack the established order” characterizes the main attitude of the revolt, contrary to anyone who seeks to criminalize and depoliticize the confrontations, as if they had nothing to do with class struggle. This distrust of power has deep roots, as explained by sociologist Fabien Truong, professor at Paris-VIII University:

These are boys of the same age as Nahel, who react in an intimate and violent way for one simple reason: this death could have been theirs. They say to themselves: “It could have been me.” Every teenager in these neighborhoods has memories of negative, clashing altercations with the police. Repeated, unpleasant identity checks beneath their apartments are humiliating and stressful, and in the long run they breed deep resentment. They imply that [the youths’] presence, at the very foot of their home, is illegitimate, that it must be justified. This logic of suspicion is almost metaphysical and existential. These young people tell themselves that they are being controlled because of who they are, not what they do. These experiences leave a lasting mark on their existence. In the course of my investigations, I see just how deeply these wounds mark people: after the age of 30, the fear of the police remains acute. The relationship with the state has been painful, and the republican promise has not been kept. This undoubtedly goes some way to explaining the political disaffection of housing project residents, and their distrust of those who embody power.

This mistrust explains why public institutions are being targeted by the rioters, be they town halls, police cars, police stations, the Fresnes prison, or even, in a more contradictory way, school buildings or socio-educational facilities such as multimedia libraries or community centers, which young people equate with the state, with which they have a relationship that is, at minimum, conflictual and marked by profound structural inequality.

The second element of the uprising is economic hardship — the growing incidence of “looting” is giving the uprising a “food riot” character, one that we usually see in other types of mobilizations, such as demonstrations in semicolonial countries. The “looting” is the consequence of the severe hardships imposed in recent years, from the first Covid lockdown, with its arbitrary and repressive measures, to inflation and the rising cost of living. While “looting” may occur during any riot, the scale of the phenomenon this time marks a qualitative leap forward, linked to the deterioration in living conditions and the resentment in working-class neighborhoods about lack of access to commodities that are promoted by all the media outlets but denied in practice to ever-wider sections of the population. As a journalist from Mediapart noted when interviewing Safia, a resident of the Parisian suburb of Montreuil,

She also mentioned inflation, which is hitting poor and middle-class families hard, with eggs and milk doubling in price. “I saw them last night, very young people, coming out with bags of food filled to the brim. It was striking.” Several residents in the neighborhood recount the same scenes seen from their balconies: youngsters pushing shopping carts as they leave the Auchan supermarket — heavily looted, far more than the stores in the town center, just like the Aldi convenience store near Romainville. “It was as if they were running errands for their moms!” described a local resident. The supermarket security guard confirms: “They took everything. The store is empty.”

The protesters gradually became emboldened during the uprising, enabling these actions. As the nights of confrontation progressed, the uprising spread to new cities, and young people realized that they could also attack major shopping centers. In other cases, the ransacking of stores may express resentment toward gentrification. As explained by Julien Talpin, a sociologist at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) specializing in low-income neighborhoods:

In some of these areas, the shops and establishments particularly targeted are symbols of a certain gentrification: high-end bakeries, organic stores, luxury boutiques. These establishments represent a sociological transformation of these neighborhoods, with the arrival of new, more financially well-off residents — and the consequent feeling among older residents of being further downgraded and excluded.

There were ample reasons for the anger to erupt in working-class neighborhoods. Given the growing social movements since Macron came to power, as well as the state of emergency during Covid and its resulting police violence, it’s surprising that the conditions for widespread revolt didn’t lead to an explosion sooner. A community leader at a social center in the northeastern city of Tourcoing told Le Monde about the explosive nature of the generation of young people who are leading the movement: “We don’t have them on our radar. It’s a Covid generation with whom we have very little contact and, as a result, when things get out of hand, attempts at mediation are useless.”

An Organic Crisis at Its Peak

If there’s one place where the divide between representatives and represented is at its most acute, it’s in the suburbs. These areas generally have high rates of voter abstention (although during the first round of the 2022 presidential elections, the left-wing populist and head of La France Insoumise, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, had greater support in the suburbs than elsewhere in France, in order to block the election of the far-right Marine Le Pen). Moreover, the suburbs go unrepresented by trade unions, political parties, and community organizations, as was already the case in 2005. As sociologist François Dubet explains,

The contrast with the former “red” suburbs is striking: these communist towns of the postwar period were not rich, but they were supported by parties, unions, and popular education movements. Teachers and social workers lived in the neighborhoods where they worked. From this perspective, these suburbs were integrated into society. All, or almost all, of these support networks have disappeared. Social workers come from outside, and municipal services have replaced popular education movements. The elected representatives are not heard, and the residents, especially young people, feel that they are not heard by the representatives. This experience is so brutal that it leads young people to destroy everything that can link them to society — libraries, schools, social centers.

Throughout these intense days and nights, even the more or less informal or institutional mediators — whether imams or drug dealers — seem to have been unable to contain the unrest. The former have been overwhelmed, and their influence has been much less than some suggest. As Imam Azzedine Gaci of the Othman mosque outside Lyon admitted on his Facebook page, “I have to admit that, as things stand, the mosque can’t do much for these young people. The mosque has neither the human nor, above all, the financial resources to look after these struggling youths.”

As for the drug dealers, until Thursday, June 29, the media explained that the Marseilles neighborhoods had not joined the mobilization on account of their role, as in 2005. An article in Le Figaro noted, “So when the country rises up, Marseille’s traffickers make sure that the inhabitants of the neighborhoods keep quiet and police themselves to avoid any major outbursts. This explanation is shared by the vast majority of Marseille’s police and justice departments.” But the events on Friday showed that the dealers were also overwhelmed, with the epicenter of the mobilization shifting to Marseille and demonstrators overtaking the police. Again, these are unprecedented events.

This crisis of intermediate bodies, already noticeable during the Yellow Vest movement, undermines all the mechanisms developed throughout the 20th century to pacify social conflict. The lack of tools to contain the movement explains the vulnerabilities of state power. As a journalist at Les Échos explains, “[Macron] spoke of appeasement, and now he finds himself confronted with a security situation unseen since the Yellow Vests. ‘There are no more intermediate bodies, so there’s no longer a safety valve. When there’s a spark, it explodes,’ notes an adviser.”

In the case of these working-class, low-income neighborhoods, the situation is exacerbated by the repressive policies of Macronism, which, as part of its racist campaign against “separatism,” has used every legal means at its disposal to repress, discriminate against, and even dissolve anti-racist or Muslim organizations. Furthermore, it has harassed autonomous collectives such as the Adama Committee and the family of Assa Traoré2Translator’s Note: Adama Traoré was murdered by police in 2016. The Adama Committee is an anti-racist organization led by his sister Assa Traoré., who have been targeted since the historic protests in Paris after the death of George Floyd. Under these conditions, it is no surprise that people’s rage expresses itself through an open revolt.

Trends toward Civil War

Nahel’s murder has once again dramatically exposed the conditions of segregation and marginalization faced by the most precarious and exploited sectors of the working class. Racialized populations and urban youth face a state that continues its colonial practices in other forms — through policing, control, and, where necessary, repression. It is telling that the epicenter of the revolt is the Paris suburb of Nanterre, which was a shantytown in the 1960s, a metropolitan by-product of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62). The war led to a sharp increase in migration from Algeria to France. The current revolt must be understood in the context of the French state’s imperialist management of its peripheries — geographically, socially, and racially.

This management is intensified by the deepening centralization and authoritarian nature of the French state, which we’ve written about in other articles. As mentioned above, these Bonapartist tendencies aggravate the structural crisis of the intermediate bodies, which were already weakened by the neoliberal counterreform. At the level of political organization, Macron’s party has never had such weak roots in working-class France, particularly in the suburbs. While his rhetoric about the “deserving self-employed person” may have struck a chord in these neighborhoods for a time, particularly during the first campaign in 2017, it no longer resonates today. As L’Opinion points out, Macron’s party, Renaissance,

is still perceived as the party of the metropolitan areas only. This is unfair, since Emmanuel Macron’s party has conquered other territories, such as rural areas and right-leaning medium-sized towns, but not the suburbs. Quite the contrary, in fact. In 2017, with his promise to put an end to the “house arrest” of suburban youth, Emmanuel Macron managed to attract a portion of this electorate. The majority won three seats in Seine-Saint-Denis [a particularly precarious deindustrialized department outside Paris]. It lost them all in 2022.3The following figures, reported by Le Monde, point in the same direction: “Polling station number 44 in the commune of Nanterre is located in the Pablo-Picasso elementary school, a stone’s throw from the housing project of the same name where the urban riots began after the death of Nahel M. In the first round of voting in 2017, Emmanuel Macron won 23.6 percent of the vote; in 2022, he won just 14.8 percent. And abstention rose by 15 points in the second round against the far-right candidate, reaching a dizzying 47 percent.”

There is thus a divide between the state and the population, as well as a void of intermediate bodies in a geographical and social space that is inhabited by people whom the state perceives as the “internal enemy.” This space is increasingly being filled by the police as an institutional body, with the lasting imprint of its colonial heritage, as evidenced by the increase in police violence. As suburban historian and researcher Hacène Belmessous explains in his Petite histoire politique des banlieues populaires [A brief political history of working-class suburbs]:

The police in the working-class suburbs have established themselves as the agents of social cohesion in the day-to-day life of these areas. [The police force] contains the influences of all public institutions (schools, social services, social landlords, etc.) within the limits of the power it has arrogated to itself, exerting pressure externally on the government, and internally on local elected officials and administrations, imposing its forms of regulation in certain political arbitrations and the control of the social life of the inhabitants. The various governments have given in to its demands to such an extent that the police now hold all powers in their own hands: security, social, political, legal, moral, normative. Without a doubt, this drift reflects a terrible democratic regression in working-class neighborhoods.

This intensification of police control of the suburbs, a practice that is notoriously aligned with the Far Right’s political agenda, is the main reason underlying the revolt in the suburbs.

In the face of the uprising of youth in working-class neighborhoods, the radicalization of the police is revealing the first signs of a trend toward civil war.

The warlike statement issued by the police unions Alliance and UNSA Police, the front-runners in the latest police union elections, leaves no room for doubt. Just a few quotes from their statement suffice: “In the face of these savage hordes, demanding calm is no longer enough. It must be imposed”; “the time has come not for union action but for the fight against these vermin”; “we are at war”; “we already know that we will relive this batshit situation.” The political purpose of this kind of statement is to pressure the president and the entire political class, even threatening to impose, by force, a regime in which the freedom to kill would be even less challenged than it is today. It aims at seeking absolute police impunity, a regime of increased terror against racialized populations. This threat from the repressive forces needs to be taken even more seriously given that the current regime is itself the fruit of a military coup, which put an end to a Fourth Republic mired in the Algerian war.

 Yet a move to a higher, more qualitative level of Bonapartism could prove hazardous for those in power. There is always the risk that a Bonapartist power grab would insufficiently account for the balance of power, leading to a reaction from the mass movement. In fact, despite the defeat of the pension demands, the forces of the workers’ movement are essentially intact, albeit restrained by the Intersyndicale. Not to mention the youth, over whom the unions have little control. This likely explains why the presidential camp is cautious in dealing with the police unions and pressure from the Right and Far Right, notably in its refusal to declare a state of emergency, many of whose measures were incorporated into common law in 2017. Escalating the security front could backfire and spread the crisis to the whole country, beyond just working-class neighborhoods. As an Élysée adviser pointed out, “Macron is maintaining a 45,000-strong police force as a deterrent, but ‘without the overkill of symbolic, ineffective, extremist measures. If he had given in, the French would have spent the [first] weekend [of July] under a state of emergency and curfew.’” At a time when the population is highly sensitive to the more Bonapartist elements of the Fifth Republic, as demonstrated by the reactions to the use of Article 49.3 during the pension reform, declaring a state of emergency represented a risk that Macron did not want to take.

Nevertheless, the risks of an even more Bonapartist drift are ever present. As Le Figaro pointed out regarding the events of late June and early July,

to the throwing of projectiles and incendiary devices, the police and gendarmes have so far retaliated by throwing tear gas and sting-ball grenades. “But if someone fires a shot and there’s a fatality, whichever side they’re on, we’ll tip over into another dimension, which would no longer be controllable,” hisses a prefect, without dropping the term “civil war.”

The idea of such an outcome is also reinforced by the initiatives taken by far-right groups in cities such as Chambéry, Lyon, and Angers. In the northwestern commune of Lorient in Brittany, from the night of June 30 to July 1, some 30 people took part in the crackdown alongside the police, turning in young people after tying flexi-straps around their wrists. The army has since opened an investigation into the probable presence of navy personnel among the group describing themselves as “anti-looters.”

One thing is certain: the persistence of racial segregation, linked to the continuity of colonial management of racialized populations, is accelerating the confrontation between reactionary forces on the one hand, and the liberatory currents of the mass movement on the other. This gives a different rhythm and character to the class struggle, imposing responsibilities on the workers’ movement and the revolutionaries within it.

Working-Class Neighborhoods Less Isolated Compared to 2005

The government’s attempt to discredit the movement by denying it any political content and emphasizing its “ultraviolence” is designed to create a reactionary buffer zone between disenfranchised youth from these neighborhoods and the rest of the population. Government spokesman Olivier Véran bluntly underlined this point on France Info on July 2: “There have already been movements for political demands, sometimes marches with violence, but contained violence. Here, there’s no political message. When you loot a Foot Locker, Lacoste or Sephora store, there’s no political message. It’s just looting.” At the same time, the Far Right is using the security crisis to call for an authoritarian clampdown. In this context, public opinion condemns the “violence” directed against public buildings and the police.

This differentiates the current revolt from the Yellow Vests uprising, which has retained a high level of support among the public, despite a series of episodes of “violence,” such as the attack on the prefecture in Le Puy-en-Velay, the partial vandalism of the Arc de Triomphe on December 1, 2018, and the forced entry of a government ministry by a construction machine on January 5, 2019. The difference in public support is partially explained by the targets chosen by young people during this movement, which were not always explicitly associated with power and the state. More important, however, is systemic racism.

But working-class neighborhoods are less isolated in 2023 than in 2005. As Alain Bertho, a specialist in the phenomena of rioting, points out, “In 2005, the France 2 television news first talked about the scandal of the burned cars, then came the death of the children, and the political reactions were all aligned with this hierarchy of information. There was a consensus in calling for calm, which left these children absolutely alone.” It’s quite symptomatic that, despite the reactionary hysteria against young people from the neighborhoods, who are portrayed as delinquents, 20 percent of French people and 40 percent of those under 25 understand the violence against police officers, according to an Elabe poll. What’s more, there is a majority rejection of Nahel’s murder by the police. Thus, 53 percent of French people agree with Macron’s statements the day after Nahel’s death that the killing was “inexplicable” and “inexcusable.” This opinion is more widely shared by those under 25 (71 percent). From a political standpoint, it is held by 66 percent of Mélenchon voters and 64 percent of Macron voters.

While there are many causes of this shift from 2005 to the present, one of the most important is the fact that this new generation of activists has itself been subject to repression. As Bertho points out, “The mobilization against the pension reform and, before it, the Yellow Vests made this militant generation aware of the impunity of police violence, which neighborhoods have been suffering for years. The considerable intensification of police repression has demarginalized these young people and these neighborhoods, and changed the way we look at them today.” Among the vanguard, one of the milestones in this slow process of building consciousness is in the advances made by the anti-racist movement. This was made possible by the politicization around the issue of police violence, finding unprecedented mass expression among the youth June 2020, as well as in the links created between some of the anti-racist organizations and the rest of the social movement.

In this regard, we can mention the convergences that have been built in recent years not only with the environmental movement but also with structures of self-organization within the workers’ movement, such as the Intergare, the inter-station coordinating group that grew out of the railway strikes. In 2018, this body formed a “Saint-Lazare Pole” alongside the Adama Committee during the Yellow Vests movement. These alliances have been fostered by the profound relationship that a significant portion of the working class from the low-income suburban neighborhoods has with these issues, from the transportation strikes of 2019–20, led by workers drawing from their own experiences in the 2005 uprisings, to the June 29 White March for Nahel, which was attended by worker militants from the railway and energy sectors. Large swathes of the working world intimately understand that police violence and the fight against racism are also part of class struggle.

These factors explain the reaction of sectors of the Left, such as La France Insoumise, which refused to call for “calm” despite pressure from the state to do so. They also underline the broad front of political and trade union organizations, including the CGT, which expressed its support for the working-class neighborhoods in a joint statement published on July 5. This position marks a break with, and a step forward from 2005. This statement was, however, belated, and it emphasized appealing to the government. This institutional logic prevented it from forming the basis for a genuine united front in defense of the uprising, against police repression and violence, and for justice and truth regarding Nahel’s murders and all the other murders of young people at the hands of the police.

The Urgent Need for Politics to Unleash the Energy of the Masses

Judging by the reactions of the executive and the government, it seems that the weeklong uprising in the neighborhoods generated more crisis at the highest levels of the state than 14 days of national mobilization organized by the Intersyndicale aimed at pressuring the government. The young people involved in the clashes with the police, as well as the deepest and most exploited sectors of the working class, could not be drawn in by the Intersyndicale’s strategy, which has become a machine for creating a sense of powerlessness. Yet their uprising is fully in line with the sequence and rupture opened by the pensions movement, and likely anticipates the radicalization among wider layers of the working class. Thus, as Le Monde reports,

in [the Parisian suburb of] Aubervilliers, the police station was attacked with fireworks by young people. “Some of them are my former pupils,” confided a teacher at a local secondary school. They are between 18 and 21 years old, “not fundamentally violent youngsters,” but more the type “to hang out at the bottom of the housing project with their music on,” and have just started work or are looking for a job. “They think Nahel could have been one of their buddies. They hate the violent police. For them, it’s the best way to make themselves heard. They say that demonstrations are useless, you have to break everything.”

This explosion thus sheds light on the Intersyndicale’s attitude in recent months. If the coalition fought any move beyond a strictly defensive and union framework, and against broadening of the demands of the pensions movement, it was because it feared that going on the offensive would lead to a situation it could not control. It is in this fear of an explosive mass movement of the oppressed that one should look for the reasons behind their conservative policy, rather than in any objective inability of the most precarious or impoverished sections of the class to join the mobilization against pension reform. This refusal by union leaders to unify the potential for struggle of the working class as a whole is responsible for the fact that the distress and anger of the most exploited sectors of the working world was expressed in isolation, and in an essentially “negative” or “hollow” way.

In contrast, their joining forces with the renewed power of the organized labor movement in the fight against the pension reform could have opened up an overtly prerevolutionary situation in the country. Faced with the impasse of the institutional policies of the political and trade union leaderships of the workers’ movement, as confirmed once again by their defeat in the pension battle, the youth of working-class neighborhoods have demonstrated that there can be no victory without first shaking and bending the state and the political regime of the Fifth Republic.

Once again, given these reactionary prospects, the central question for the coming period is how to unite the strength of all the exploited in a counteroffensive against Macron and the capitalist state. The challenge is to unite the objectively anti-capitalist questioning of work that the movement against the pension reform conveyed, the determination of workers and young people, with the methods of the Yellow Vests, of “suburban France,” and the effectiveness of working-class methods of struggle, demonstrated, for example, during the refinery strike in the fall 2022, which almost brought the country to a standstill. All these forces already exist in strength, as the most recent episodes of class struggle have shown. The task at hand is equipping them with an emancipatory project, a strategy, and a leadership with the will to win.

First published in French on Révolution Permanente on July 7, 2023.

Translation: Antoine Ramboz


1 Translator’s note: The term quartiers populaires is generally translated as “working-class neighborhoods” or “low-income neighborhoods,” though this does not quite capture the meaning. In France, the term refers to the suburbs of big cities, characterized by housing projects, intense precarity, and a high density of immigrant families, largely from countries previously colonized by the French state.
2 Translator’s Note: Adama Traoré was murdered by police in 2016. The Adama Committee is an anti-racist organization led by his sister Assa Traoré.
3 The following figures, reported by Le Monde, point in the same direction: “Polling station number 44 in the commune of Nanterre is located in the Pablo-Picasso elementary school, a stone’s throw from the housing project of the same name where the urban riots began after the death of Nahel M. In the first round of voting in 2017, Emmanuel Macron won 23.6 percent of the vote; in 2022, he won just 14.8 percent. And abstention rose by 15 points in the second round against the far-right candidate, reaching a dizzying 47 percent.”
Juan is an editor of our French sister site Révolution Permanente.