Paris, France – The recent wave of riots that has swept across France in the aftermath of the police killing of 17-year-old Nahel M, an Algerian-origin boy, has laid bare the deep-seated discrimination fueled by racism and Islamophobia in French society. This unprecedented surge of unrest, characterized by its scale and intensity, has brought to the forefront unresolved questions regarding integration and the systemic biases faced by third- and fourth-generation French citizens of immigrant descent. As the nation grapples with the consequences of its unaddressed issues, the riots serve as a poignant reminder of the stark realities often overlooked in the waters of societal discourse.
In the vibrant city of Marseille, France-based Maher Mezahi writes to BBC, which I have called home for the past year, a surreal routine has taken hold. Afternoons are now a frenzied rush to complete errands before shops and public transport prematurely shutter in anticipation of the impending chaos. The evenings are dominated by a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game between law enforcement and rioters, accentuated by the pulsating symphony of blaring car sirens, hovering helicopters, and explosive fireworks.
Mornings, on the other hand, unfold with French talk-shows providing a one-sided analysis of the unrest. The revolving door of police union spokespersons, legal analysts, and politicians, despite their repeated attempts to explain the who, what, and notably, the why behind the riots, often fall short of genuine understanding. While the police killing of Nahel was almost unanimously condemned, the aftermath saw the resurfacing of familiar questions surrounding immigration in France.
The ubiquitous query lingers: “How have third- and fourth-generation French citizens of immigrant descent failed to integrate into French society?” And then there is my personal favorite: “Don’t rioters understand that they are ruining their own property?” The persistence of these questions, raised decades ago, prompts skepticism about the intentions behind their repetition.
In his renowned commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, the late American novelist David Foster Wallace shared a parable that holds relevance today. He spoke of two young fish swimming past an older fish who greeted them with the question: “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” Oblivious to their surroundings, the young fish continued their journey until one asked the other: “What the hell is water?”
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Wallace’s parable serves to illuminate the notion that the most glaring realities, those of utmost importance, are often the most difficult to perceive and discuss. As a young, Algerian, Muslim man raised in Canada, said Maher Mezahi, my observations of everyday life in France over the past months reveal an unmistakable stench of latent, banalized racism and Islamophobia permeating the societal fabric.
The weeks leading up to the tragic shooting witnessed multiple instances of prominent media outlets and political elites making highly provocative statements about Muslims and Algerians in France. In early June, former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, in a wide-ranging interview, called for immigration reform and highlighted the perspective that some French people do not consider second- or third-generation immigrants French in terms of integration, education, and civic-mindedness. He also expressed concerns about Islam, referring to it as a central, disturbing, and haunting subject.
Furthermore, in June, France’s most-watched news channel, BFM TV, focused its cameras on the entrance of a middle school in Lyon, meticulously counting the number of students wearing “abayas,” loose robes worn by many Muslim women. The intent behind this report was to alert the French public to what was portrayed as the encroachment of religious displays in schools, contradicting the principles of laïcité, the concept of strict secularism in public spaces.
Undeterred, the girls wearing abayas defiantly approached the school entrance and removed their headscarves, or hijabs, as required by French law, forcing the institution to confront the act of undressing them publicly. These scenes evoked memories of Frantz Fanon’s poignant analysis in “Algeria Unveiled,” where he examined the colonial apparatus’s voyeuristic fixation on Algerian women who chose to cover their bodies.
Following the abaya controversy, news broke of a handful of Muslim children, aged between nine and 11, daring to pray in the courtyard of their school in Nice. The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, a prominent figure within a right-wing political party, Eric Ciotti, and the Minister of Education, Pap Ndiaye, publicly berated these young children.
A few weeks later, just before the onset of the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup, a French court upheld a ban on Muslim footballers wearing the hijab. While the officer responsible for Nahel’s killing is now in custody, right-wing figures launched a crowdfunding campaign in support of the officer, which amassed €1.6m (£1.4m; $1.7m) in donations before its closure. Although some left-leaning politicians condemned the campaign, it has become a deeply divisive symbol, with right-wing supporters rallying around it as a demonstration of their unwavering support for law enforcement.
These incidents and controversies further fuel the perception among Muslims and North Africans residing in France that they are not accepted by the state and society at large. Consequently, they provide insight into the reasons why such a profound anger has manifested in response to Nahel’s killing.
Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Last week, troubled French youth, perhaps for the first time in their lives, made their voices heard through these riots—a desperate cry to be acknowledged and understood.
As France grapples with the aftermath of the unrest, it is crucial to recognize that the underlying causes are not confined to isolated incidents. They stem from deeply ingrained discrimination, fueled by racism and Islamophobia, which permeate the everyday lives of individuals with immigrant backgrounds. The riots have brought these simmering issues to the forefront, demanding urgent attention and meaningful action.
In the face of such profound societal unrest, it is imperative that France confronts the systemic biases and barriers that hinder the full integration and acceptance of all its citizens. Only through genuine dialogue, empathy, and a commitment to dismantling discrimination can the nation begin to heal and forge a more inclusive future.