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Dispatches from the present


With a Vengeance


Je vais te mettre une balle dans la tête!” (I’m going to put a bullet in your head) screamed the police officer just before he fired at seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk. The bullet went through the windshield into Nahel’s arm before lodging in his chest. The car he was driving flung along a few yards, crashing into a roadside block up ahead. Nahel was dead by the time he was transported to the hospital, and for the rest of the week after the killing, France burned.

In Romainville, a tiny hamlet in the department of Seine-Saint-Denis, in the eastern suburbs of Paris almost exactly opposite to Nanterre, the neighborhood where the police killed Nahel, I spent a few sleepless nights as protesters took to the streets to avenge his murder. Protests usually began at around 1 o’clock in the morning. Every day it started with a barrage of fireworks that shook buildings and lit up the sky over the banlieue. Sometimes the fireworks ricocheted off my living room window. After the light show, the burning began as protesters piled dumpsters and trash, anything they could get their hands on, built barricades at road intersections and set them ablaze. When I opened my window, the air reeked of burnt plastic and ash. That’s when the sound of sirens from every direction deafened everything else making noise that night. Occasionally, you could hear the sound of crushed glass and banging piercing through the wailing of the fire trucks.

One morning, I went around the neighborhood to inspect the melee that had taken place the night before. Every road intersection and roundabout was marked by burnt gravel and melted plastic. It was almost as if the earth itself fissured at those crossings, roaring with rage over Nahel’s murder. The trees lining the streets of Romainville and Les Lilas, the town just ahead of Paris, switched their dark green foliage to a brown auburn coat. Protesters targeted the Metro station still being built in Les Lilas, burning the construction site and leaving behind the naked skeletons of temporary workers’ facilities.

New graffiti adorned the walls and storefronts of Seine-Saint-Denis. Compiled together, they narrate some sort of manifesto left behind by the protesters: “Baise les porcs” (Fuck the pigs), “Vendredi 20hr à la Mairie, pour Naël” (Friday 8 p.m. head to the municipality, for Naël), “Vengeance pour Nahel” (Vengeance for Nahel), “Nahel mort tué comme un chien, 17 ans, pas blanc, pas d’bol” (Nahel’s dead, killed like a dog, seventeen years old, not white, no luck), “on t’aime Naël” (We love you Naël).

The backlash against the calls for justice had begun by the time Nahel’s body was transferred to the hospital. The paramedic who transported his corpse landed in jail for ranting at the police in the hospital courtyard. He was charged with threatening officers and inciting hatred. Supporters of the police officer charged with Nahel’s killing set up a legal fund, which by now has amassed over a million euros, almost ten times the amount collected to support Nahel’s family.

Sara Daniel, a French journalist and self-described Middle East “expert,” recoiled in disgust live on air on France 24 when her American colleague suggested that France had a structural racism problem, as he tried to provide some historical context on the material and class conditions of the banlieue, noting that it was taboo to bring it up. Daniel snapped back, “We are the least racist country there is.”

Daniel and her colleagues in the French media sing the praises of France’s colorblind state institutions. That thousands of French men of predominantly North African or African descent living at the edges of Paris find themselves poor and disenfranchised is their problem—forget about the decades of disinvestments and cuts to schools, public institutions and safety nets in those areas. The burning of schools, municipalities, buses, police and Metro stations was emblematic of their refusal to embrace the ideals of La République, not an expression of their disillusionment with all that it represented.

For all the patronizing talking-down to the protesters—from those in the right-wing media accusing them of acting like a militia and decrying their obsession with historical wrongs, to President Emmanuel Macron saying they lacked father figures and spent too much time playing war-based video games—few acknowledged that it was French cops who seemed to be reenacting a violent, racist past, as if cosplaying as occupation troops in Algiers circa 1956. The partner of the policemen who killed Nahel yelled “Shoot!” right before the other fired. When onlookers approached police at the scene of the crash, one officer barked at them, “Go back to Africa.” The police union, representing almost half of French cops, released a statement two days into the protests comparing protesters to “wild hordes” of “violent minorities,” claiming that cops were in combat “because we are in a war.”

Macron, who when informed of Nahel’s death called his killing “inexplicable” and “inexcusable,” flooded the streets with 45,000 police officers in an attempt to restore order. He later spent the week visiting police stations and placating officers after police unions berated him for his earlier comments. Over three thousand protesters, some as young as twelve, were arrested and now face trial. Éric Dupond-Moretti, the Minister of Justice, wanted to go after their parents, declaring, “Parents who are not interested in their kids and who leave them hanging out at night will incur two years in prison and a fine of 30,000 euros.”

A week after Nahel’s killings, the clashes around Paris and across most of France have mostly calmed down. The queue outside Sacré Coeur stretched a couple hundred yards down the hill of Montmartre. It’s almost impossible to find a place to sit near Canal St. Martin by late afternoon. Life goes on for everyone else in Paris, almost as if the fact that the entire city burned mere days ago is a lost memory. The government has put out no new initiatives to address the abject conditions many banlieusards find themselves in. Nahel’s mother will continue to mourn, alone, while the calls for action emanating from the city’s edges have quieted for now, until the next time.