Not for the first time in the recent history of France, tensions are running high in its banlieues — the high-rise suburbs of mainly social housing that ring many cities there. The banlieues are flashpoints between marginalised low-income residents, many of whom are Arab and black and trace their roots to former French colonies across North and Central Africa, and various levels of police forces all now with enhanced powers under COVID-19 legislation.
It’s a volatile mix.
And even through some of the toughest lockdown restrictions put in place across Europe, those tensions spilt over. Social distancing for most French might mean keeping a distance and being confined; for young people existing in the banlieue, their lives were already limited by high unemployment, few prospects and repressive policing.
In April, a video circulated showing a bloodied young man lying on the ground next to two police officers. He had been on a motorcycle but crashed into a suddenly opened police car door. Whether the door was opened on purpose is unclear, but what was clear was the anger the video sparked. A protest that night in the banlieue of Villeneuve-la-Garenne led to others in a dozen Paris suburbs and similar neighbourhoods around France in the ensuing days.
Barely quelled, those passions have been further inflamed by the images and protests following the death of black man George Floyd in Minnesota. The refrains of ‘no justice, no peace’ and ‘black lives matter’ strike a chord in modern France. In 2005, rioting engulfed the country for three weeks after two boys who were running from police, Zyed and Bouna, were electrocuted while hiding in an electric generator in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. A state of emergency was declared and almost 3,000 people were arrested. That painful episode, along with the 2016 death in police custody of Adama Traore — it remains under investigation almost five years on — remain fresh in the minds of many.
Restrictions and fines
And then there’s the coronavirus lockdown.
Between March 17 and May 11, strict government rules restricted people’s movements to a kilometre around their homes and required that anyone leaving their home carry a signed paper stating why. Punishments included fines starting at €135 euros (Dh565) and even prison. On the first day punishments were doled out, 10 per cent of the fines given in France were doled out in Seine-Saint-Denis on Paris’ northern edge. There unemployment is twice the national average, almost one person out of three is an immigrant, and most others are descendants of immigrants.
Government officials defended the fines as necessary to fight the virus in a region with high infection rates. But police union leader Yves Lefebvre lamented that the lockdown measures “again made the police a repressive tool.”
“Public services have deserted these neighbourhoods,” and police are the only presence left, which “necessarily leads to confrontation,” he said.
There are not French people of this or that origin. There are children of the Republic, and France protects all her children.
Lefebvre, general secretary for Unite SGP Police-Force Ouvriere union, said trust has been broken because “police only enter those neighbourhoods to restore order.”
The chief of Paris police also weighed in. In a letter to his 27,500 police officers, Didier Lallement, wrote that he sympathises with the “pain” they must feel as they face “accusations of violence and racism, repeated endlessly by social networks and certain activist groups”, adding the force “is neither violent, nor racist: it acts within the framework of the right to liberty for all”.
The Villeneuve incident is being investigated by prosecutors and by the French state police watchdog agency, which said it received 166 citizen reports of problematic police behaviour and seven formal complaints of police abuse during the 54 days of France’s coronavirus lockdown.
Throughout, French President Emmanuel Macron has remained silent on the issue of police behaviour, delegating responsibility instead to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.
Rising popularity of Philippe
Castaner announced earlier this week that police would no longer use chokeholds of the sort that was used to fatally subdue Floyd. The message didn’t quite strike the right tone, however: Castaner was castigated for commenting police will be suspended for every suspicion of racist behaviour.
Instead, it was up to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to calm the crisis in striking a balance between finding the right words and expressing support for police and security forces. Visiting a police commissariat and a youth organisation, Philippe sounded positively presidential: “There are not French people of this or that origin. There are children of the Republic, and France protects all her children.”
The PM then acknowledged the “formidably difficult” job facing police. “We owe them respect and confidence,” he said, adding citizens nonetheless had “the duty to be demanding”.
President Macron faces re-election in a little under two years’ time — a period where potential rivals will be testing the waters and honing policies and personal skills that will appeal to French voters come early April 2022. What’s worrying for Macron is that Philippe — hand-picked by the new president as premier — is now more popular in a series of opinion polls taken during and after the worst of the coronavirus restrictions.
The president stands at 40 per cent in a Paris Match poll taken in early June, the prime minister at 53 per cent. In a late May poll on personality traits, respondents pinned Macron with arrogance and authoritarianism, Philippe with courage and dynamism.
Could the former Mayor of Le Havre be Macron’s biggest obstacle to a second term at the head of the Republic?
The irony is that Marcon has actually handled the corona crisis very competently — he prevented mass layoffs, propped up the salaries of the unemployed, staved off long food lines, and achieved a lower death rate than France’s neighbours with the exception of Germany.
With municipal elections due this month, Macron is expected to announce a shake-up of his government, reshuffling ministers in an effort to boost popularity and set the focus on his own re-election. He might indeed even be tempted to replace Philippe. Or might he be pragmatic in holding his friends in politics close — and his rivals closer?