The fatal police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk during a traffic stop in Paris, France, sparked days of protests across the country. This week on Intercepted, host Murtaza Hussain is joined by Yasser Louati, a French political analyst and human rights advocate to discuss how Merzouk’s death struck at the fault lines underlying social discontent building in the country and the increasing power of the police.
[Intercepted intro theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
Murtaza Hussain: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Murtaza Hussain.
In recent weeks, France has been rocked by a wave of protests, triggered by the French police killing of a 17-year-old teenager.
Alexis Christoforous, ABC News: Now to the riots rocking France after the police killed a 17-year-old. President Emmanuel Macron promising a thorough investigation after public buildings were set on fire over the weekend.
Monika Jones, DW News: France’s interior minister says police arrested more than 700 people on the fifth night of unrest across the country. The family and friends of the 17-year-old who was killed by police conducted a private funeral.
MH: On June 27, during a traffic stop, a French police officer shot and killed Nahel Merzouk, a French teenager of North African descent. Although the officer said he’d been endangered and feared for his life, a video of the shooting later emerged suggesting otherwise.
The riots in response to Nahel’s killing, mostly led by teenagers, spread throughout France, and French authorities have met them with force. France has been rocked by different types of unrest in recent years. In 2018, the Yellow Vest Movement spread throughout the country. And, just earlier this same year, in response to a pension reform by President Emmanuel Macron’s government, people began to protest and riot once again.
Our next guest has been tracking these uprisings and what they mean for the future of French society. We’re joined by Yasser Louati, a French political analyst and human rights advocate based in Paris. He is currently the head of the Committee for Justice and Liberties, a transnational human rights and civil liberties organization.
Yasser, welcome to Intercepted.
Yasser Louati: Thank you for having me, Murtaza. It’s a pleasure.
MH: Yasser, in the last week of June, protests erupted in Paris after a police officer shot a 17-year-old boy named Nahel Merzouk. First of all, can you tell us, who was Nahel, and walk through what exactly took place?
YL: Well, Nahel was a 17-year-old kid, as you mentioned in your introduction. He was stopped by two motorized police officers, and the first bit of information we got in the news was that he tried to ram the police officer or to run him over. And the policeman, fearing for his life, resorted to using deadly force. Nahel had no criminal history whatsoever. He was the only child of a single mother.
The news broke out and, of course, the defense of the policeman was already the mainstream narrative. Well, just a couple of hours later, a video emerged on social media showing the policeman being away from harm, and that, while talking to Nahel, he was pointing his gun at him. We could hear, in the audio background, one of them was saying, “I’m going to shoot you in the head,” and the other one saying, “Shoot him.” And that’s when the car starts moving forward, and then the shot is heard, and the car just runs into a red light.
Now, fast forward less than 24 hours later, a third occupant of the vehicle came forward and shared his side of the story, and said Nahel had already been stopped previously, before the video was being recorded. And the policemen were quite aggressive with him and started beating him with their guns, so the guy pulled out his gun and started beating on him with the handle.
The bit we see in the recording was that Nahel had already been beaten and, according to the passenger, he was fainting. And him driving an automatic car and not being in parking mode, as he lost consciousness from being hit, he released the brakes, the car moves forward, and then the cop shoots him.
Now, like in any situation of this kind, the police always uses a piece of legislation of the Homeland Security Code called Article 435-1, and that article was passed in 2017 to broaden the definition of self-defense for the police. It says, anytime the policeman fears for his life, in case of absolute necessity, he can resort to using his weapon, even if it means shooting to kill.
So, the policeman used that, and it turned out, from the videos we have been seeing so far, he was in no danger. He was away from the car. He was actually on the side, and he nevertheless shot the kid, point blank, in the heart. And the emergence of this video, even more [so] with the testimony of the third occupant, is what actually lit the banlieue of France throughout the national territory.
MH: How common are shootings like this in France? Obviously, in the United States, it’s pretty well documented that police shootings and cases of police brutality are part of the public consciousness. In 2020, obviously, there were big nationwide protests over a particular police killing. Does this happen often in France, that there’s someone stopped at a traffic light, and someone shot?
YL: No, it’s not, we don’t have… the figures in the U.S., for us Europeans, are quite staggering. I mean, every time we hear and see the amount of people getting killed at the hands of the police, I mean, to us, it’s like a parallel universe.
In France, you have to remember, we do not have the same political culture, we don’t have the same history, and we do not have a massive circulation of firearms. However, in the case of the police, last year alone, 13 people got killed at traffic stops at the hands of the police, and these figures have exploded since the passing of this piece of legislation back in 2017, the infamous Article 435-1.
This means that one person per month has been killed. And many NGOs have been pointing to this piece of legislation saying that this has actually encouraged policemen and [policewomen] to resort to deadly force, even when it was not necessarily, let alone justified.
To compare with another police, for example, in Germany, it was one for the past ten years; that’s how the police behave in Germany, in comparison to the French police. To us, witnessing all of these shootings and people getting killed for not stopping when the police summons them. First, we say, not stopping when the police asks you should not be a death sentence. And second, the policemen and [policewomen] using deadly force, even if it means hiding behind the piece of legislation that allows them to, is not acceptable.
Why? Because, how come the gendarmerie — which is the military police — does not have as high a body count as the police, but only the police has this problem? It’s because — and this is, of course, not really official — but the police, or the Ministry of Interior — or the Home Office, for our British counterparts — has adopted a very loose definition of this piece of legislation.
So, there has been quite an encouragement, so much so that this policeman’s lawyer some years ago — so, today, he’s defending the killer of Nahel — years ago, this very same lawyer said that this piece of legislation is going to create a massive problem of police shooting in France.
MH: You wrote in a recent article for The New Arab that the riots are “an indication of a deeply divided society.” Can you talk about what the divide is in France, or the divides are in France, that have been opened up by the shooting? I think that, it seems to me, from spending time there and just analyzing the situation, is that there were these fault lines in society anyway, and the shooting sort of precipitated them opening.
Talk about what exactly we are seeing, or what social divides are we seeing in France that have been revealed to them now?
YL: An event could summarize these divides, in light of the killing of Nahel, is the fundraiser for the policeman who killed Nahel, which collected a million euros within 24 hours, which is obscene for a country like France. This is not America, where you can raise millions of dollars in donations. This is, when you hit the million euro mark, you are in the top zero-point-one percent in terms of a fundraiser.
On the other hand, the fundraiser for Nahel barely collected, at the time of counting of the million euros, barely reached 200,000 euros. So, not only [have] people turned to GoFundMe — and, by the way, I’m naming and shaming them for refusing to shut down this fundraiser. So, we have people ready to open a fundraiser and collect money for Nahel’s killer, and being perfectly fine that he killed a 17-year-old, and you have those on the other side saying this is unacceptable, and identifying more with Nahel, and saying, this could have been me, this could have been my son or a friend of mine.
So, this is in light of police killings, but if you want to expand a little bit [on] this outlook on France: of course, there is a racial divide, which is a taboo in France. You know, the racial question is not supposed to be spoken of because, officially, the Republic is colorblind. The famous notion of universalism, that somehow we are within a universal… how can I say… universe. And, somehow, that race plays no role in our interactions between one another.
However, though the French Republic proclaims to not recognize, to quote the Constitution, “No race, no community, no religion,” etc., people are treated based on their ethnic background, based on their skin color, and based, of course, on their religious affiliation. So, that’s already a deep divide. And all governments, since the end of the colonial era, have refused to address it, to address the remnants of colonization in French institutions, how colonization has actually founded the current republic under which we live since 1958. And they have all refused to see how French people who have been of second, third, and fourth generations in France, with the French citizenship, who identify with France and are part of the landscape, are still feeling the brunt of the racial divide.
And, of course — and this one might speak more to the white majority — we have now a deepening and widening divide when it comes to class. The initiation of the neoliberal policies in the early 1980s under a socialist government — that of Francois Mitterrand, elected in 1981 — has actually started a dismantling of the welfare state as it was founded [following] the liberation of France.
And Emmanuel Macron represents the acceleration, or the latest stage, of the dismantling of the welfare state, and then creating a class of very well-to-do people, who benefit from the macro-policies passed by the various governments, and the working class, which are now… in French, we speak of déclassement, people who are actually losing their class status, and moving downward on the scale, meaning going from, let’s say, middle class to poor, if not very poor.
So, these are basically the three divides we see in France so far.
MH: Over the last few years, there was a very famous protest movement in France which many people in the United States were interested in called the Yellow Vests. And these Yellow Vest protests, obviously, they had a lot of very evocative imagery, and you could see images of riots and property damage or whatever else taking place in France. It was very evocative for many reasons.
Can you talk about what the difference is between the Yellow Vest protests and these most recent protests? Are they a different segment of society? Was the scale of the process different? How would you characterize the difference, and what’s salient about the differences between them?
YL: Well, unlike most protests in France, historically speaking, which usually start from Paris and then expand beyond the capital city, the Yellow Vest Movement actually started outside of Paris, in what we call Le Provence, which means the cities and towns and smaller towns that are in the countryside, etc.
The Yellow Vest Movement was a trigger, because of the taxation on gas and, of course, some kind of boiling anger towards Emmanuel Macron. The Yellow Vest Movement was identified as being predominantly white, and that is why many people coming from the banlieue, and from the NGOs, and the grassroots movements that were historically anchored in the banlieue and the antiracist struggle, didn’t necessarily identify with the movement at first, even while the movement was being crushed.
Why? Because the Yellow Vest Movement was a moment where many people, including myself, said, join the club. Because, while Blacks, Arabs, and Muslims were demonstrating against police brutality, against state violence, especially in light of the antiterrorism measures post the Paris attacks of 2015, the fact that they face discrimination in access to resources, access to housing, to higher education, and this access discriminates against them.
Many people said, where’s the white majority to call this out? So, we are facing unfair policies, and when we call them out, we get brutally crushed. So, when the Yellow Vest Movement started, many people looked at it like, OK, it was some kind of white majority movement, even though many union leaders came, actually, from a North African and Sub-Saharan background.
The difference here with what happened post the killing of Nahel is that, immediately, people thought of the 2005 uprisings, meaning that there has been a buildup of anger over the past 18 years, and that those same Blacks and Arabs who have been repressed for the past, let’s say, 18 years, you have to think of all the anti-Muslim laws passed under successive governments, the permanent Islamophobia in mainstream French society, the rise of the far right. The fact that the counter terrorism policies post-November 2015 have massively crushed Muslim organizations, Bali organizations, have criminalized organizers… well, this time, people, even myself — I’ve been active for quite a few years now — I was surprised by how quick it spread outside of Paris, and the level of anger that was displayed as we saw it in various videos.
So, the comparison between the Yellow Vests Movement and that of the last couple of weeks stands only in how it has been received, or they have been welcomed by the government: with police brutality, more repression. But, one notable difference: when the Yellow Vest Movement was attacking property, rioting, shattering showcases, and walking on the Champs Elysees, nobody spoke of ethnicity.
But, in this case here, though Nahel was born in France, his mother was born in France, and only his grandparents came from overseas, and the fact that our Fox News today — BFM Television, or CNews — they’re starting putting on display the faces of the rioters and highlighting their first names, saying, see, their names are not white European names, and therefore these are not social uprisings, this is an ethnic riot, the same way the 2005 uprisings were dismissed as being riots of the Islamists, of the Blacks and Arabs who failed to integrate.
One famous article about that is an interview of a rightwing columnist called Alain Finkielkraut to Haaretz, the newspaper based in Tel Aviv, and he spoke of ethnic riots against France. And this is, of course, the same tool governments have used to dismiss the more profound question of social inequality, police brutality, lack of representation, and class disdain.
MH: Yes, that narrative is very popular with outside observers of France, who see France as sort of a laboratory of ethnic conflict, and project their own preconceptions or even desires onto what’s going on there, particularly in regards to ethnic conflict and refutation of a multicultural society. And yet, the reality is much more complicated, as you said.
Can you tell us a bit about who is exactly protesting in these uprisings? We see a lot of footage, and it strikes me that a lot of them are teenagers, as opposed to organized groups or nongovernmental organizations. Or, you know, something with more direction, or even more adult participation. It seems like a lot of very young people.
Can you tell us a bit about what people are seeing in France, and who exactly is going into the streets, or has been going into the streets in the last few weeks?
YL: Well, as you mentioned in your question — actually, the answer lies there. [It’s] the fact that it was — I can’t say “mostly,” because there were also, maybe, people who were above the age of 18 — it was very young people that were not part of any organizations, and that were not part of a structured movement to organize these uprisings and turn them into a political force, or at least benefit from the gained momentum of the initial anger.
What changes, again, with 2005, is that this time we have had social media, so the profiles of people who participated in the demonstrations and the uprisings, is that we have seen people of all types. You know, you had the person who was angry because of what happened, because they had personally experienced dozens of episodes of humiliation at the hands of the police. Just a quick reminder to our listeners: if you are Black or Arab in France, you are 20 times more likely of being stopped and searched by the police, and that’s according to the ombudsman. Now, you factor in the fact that you are being stopped 20 times more by the deadliest police in continental Europe, you can imagine that this anger only builds up, because this is not a question of isolated events; it is official policy to behave as an occupying force, and to make fear change camps, as many politicians say.
Others, of course, were just moved by the video itself. To them it was, OK, enough is enough, I’m going to take to the street. And, because there was no organized movement, they went to the street and then they figured out what to do as they were outside. And, of course, you had many people who were there because there has been this call, or this kind of second moment, saying, alright, people are doing it, and I’m going to start doing it.
To answer many people who said, “Yeah, but why are they attacking the Apple Store in the city of Strasbourg, or why are they looting and taking things from supermarkets,” well, I’ve got two comments on that. First, take a look at what people were taking from these supermarkets: food, shampoo, basic necessities. So, the proper question wasn’t, “Why are they taking it?” The question is, “Look at what they are taking, and what would make them do such a thing.” I mean, they didn’t steal gold, they didn’t steal luxury items.
On the other hand, in a society spoiled by consumerism, in a society that teaches, to quote Jacques Séguéla, a famous public figure in France, he said, in primetime, “If you do not own a Rolex by the age of 50, you are nothing. Your life is a waste.”
So, how do you want these kids who are constantly told that your value is based on how much you own, that the day the opportunity comes to smash a window and take an iPhone, they’re going to go and say, no, I’m not going to do it? I’m not justifying it. I’m just saying, these riots are a direct result of the kind of values we teach through our mainstream media. And it’s also a direct result of policies that can only feed anger and resentment.
And, I mean, honestly, I really dismiss the ethnic question, because many of the rioters — or, actually, the looters — were actually white kids from upscale neighborhoods. Many of them got caught. They were coming from the bourgeois suburbs of Paris and the west side suburbs, like the 78th department. And you have been to France, so you know how it is divided here. They came from Versailles, etc., and they were rioting and looting. What do they know about police brutality? What do they know about racism? They are the ones benefiting from all these unfair policies, yet they were found looting, and rioting, and smashing windows to steal, for example, electronics and iPhones.
MH: Yasser, I wanted to ask you a bit about, again, these young people who are protesting, and sort of the things that are driving them in terms of emotional or psychological sentiments. I was watching a very interesting interview with a kid who was being interviewed during some of the riots at a grocery store, and he said something to the effect that: if you want to kill kids, we’ll loot. And, for us, it’s revenge.
Can you talk about the aspect of how people see these moments of social breakdown as a chance to settle some sort of score with society? And, in the minds of kids like this, what is the score that they’re settling?
YL: Well, if you grow up as a Black, Arab, or Muslim kid — and I’m, you know, just painting everyone with the same brush, just to make it simple — you feel that you are not part of mainstream society, you are constantly told that you don’t belong here. If you are a Muslim, you are part of a triple threat, a threat to the national economy, you are taking our jobs and you are all welfare kings and queens. You are an identity threat because you are threatening France’s multi-secular identity, etc., and you are a national security threat. And this is constantly being repeated to them.
When they go to school, they are constantly being policed in terms of how they dress, whether they fast the month of Ramadan or not. And, if they want to go through public schools and then to higher education, they are constantly reminded that if they come from the wrong neighborhood, they can’t make it to the prestigious school, the prestigious school they are targeting. So, when you have people who are not necessarily politicized, people who are not necessarily activists with a sharp outlook on French society, of course, they’re going to feel like they are being left out.
So, when the day comes that they see anger being spilled into the street, they’re going to feel more being part of that anger than being part of that segment that calls for a return to calm and order. And a simple answer would be: the banlieue have been calm for the past 18 years since the 2005 uprisings. What have been the benefits? None whatsoever. People are more poor. People have less access to resources. People are facing even more discrimination at all levels of society. And they feel that, whether they vote or not, it makes no difference.
So, to quote a mayor in France: we are not dealing with PhDs in legal theory and political science. We are talking about human beings who have been packing doses and doses of anger, and the day there is an outburst, they feel they are part of it.
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MH: Can you mention a bit about the issue of inflation recently in France? And the reason I bring it up is that there’s been some coverage in the wake of the riots that, although the precipitating cause was a police shooting, the statistics in France are quite jarring in terms of the rise of food prices, cost of living, and so forth.
There was actually a study done, published by a publication here which is a bit of a conservative publication called Compact Magazine, but it pointed to a very staggering stat that food consumption in France has gone down precipitously in the last few years, owing to people scaling back on their purchases due to this inflation. And, in some of these cases of people who were arrested for rioting, they are stealing, as you mentioned, very basic necessities: paper towels, ice cream, one person was stealing Kellogg’s cereal. And when they were interviewed, they said, “well, I’m doing it because Kellogg’s is expensive.” And another man who was arrested for stealing groceries, when arrested, he said, “I took peaches and apricots because I haven’t eaten fruit in a year.”
So, this shooting of Nahel seemed to take place against a very economically stressed environment. Can you talk a bit about how that’s been playing out in France leading up to these events?
YL: For those who are looking at France through the lens of Emily in Paris on Netflix, I’m going to disappoint you a bit. I mean, we have a poverty rate of 14. 6 percent in France; that’s over nine million people in France living below the poverty line. We are about 63 million people in France. The figure is huge for a small country like ours; we’re not talking about the U.S., or bigger countries like Germany, or elsewhere. The inflation rate for the past few years has been going up and down, but around the six percent mark.
So, yes, the killing of Nahel actually happened after accumulation of grudges towards the policies being carried by Emmanuel Macron, the scaling back of unemployment benefits, the scaling back of welfare benefits, while taxation on the rich has been maintained at a level that is obscene. Some of the billionaires in France pay almost zero percent in taxes, and I know this is something quite familiar for those who speak of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates and the likes in the U.S. Here in France, this has fed a profound anger towards the government, that has been seen as working only for the CAC 40, which is the top 40 companies in the stock market, and only benefiting to the top one percent.
If you look now at the past, let’s say, six years since Emmanuel Macron came to power, we had the Yellow Vest Movement triggered because of taxation on gas, but the demands were about purchasing power, about work stability, about salaries, and more fiscal justice. After the Yellow Vest Movement, we had the pension reform [protests]. And the pension reform [protests], again, was brutally crushed by Emmanuel Macron, the same way Macron crushed the Yellow Vest Movement. We saw bloody repression in the streets, we have seen people being maimed. One journalist had his testicles amputated because the police beat him while he was on the ground filming.
We also had the problem of how Emmanuel Macron has refused or actually kept parliament from voting in favor or against the pension reform, which means he used Article 49-3 of the French Constitution, which allows the president to pass a bill without it being voted on in the halls of Parliament. So, the level of poverty we have seen has been dramatically increasing due to the policies of Emmanuel Macron alone, but one episode that people now tend to forget is the Covid-19 episode.
We have seen people falling below the poverty line, again, because they were the ones being affected by mass firing of people, people being dismissed at a much bigger scale. Why? Because many companies used the Covid-19 as an excuse to get rid of their working force.
And, just to finish on that, if you may allow me, Murtaza, is the killing of Nahel happened within the hundred days that Emmanuel Macron called for after the pension reform, after passing his law against the will of the people, despite massive opposition in the street, and the totality of unions being against it, which is a rarity in France. The fact that, in Parliament, he feared a vote against it. He said, now it is time for appeasement, and I’m going to give ourselves a hundred days for appeasement. Well, the killing of Nahel happened within those 100 days. And we saw that the anger on police brutality only put on the table again the rising poverty in France, and the feeling that this government is not working for them.
MH: I wanted to ask you a bit about the reaction to these protests, particularly from those opposed to them, or those who you could say were more towards the right, even before these events took place. And very notably, I wanted to ask you about a statement by a French police union that was issued during the protests, which seemed almost like a call for civil war in response to the uprising.
Tell us a bit about that police union statement, and also about what the far-right parties — including the Front National — have been saying about these protests since they started.
YL: Well, the center of gravity of French politics has moved way into the hard right, if not to the far right. It does not mean the whole of France is pro-Le Pen or calling for the return of fascism, it just says that the media have been massively owned by big corporations that are pushing for this agenda of law and order coming from the hard right. And we have seen Emmanuel Macron choosing to have Marine Le Pen as his prime opponent. Why? Because both of them agree on the socioeconomic policies to be implemented.
For those who don’t follow French politics, Marine Le Pen was never seen as an acceptable or capable or competent candidate. She was always seen as a daddy’s daughter inheriting a political party, and that no one would take her seriously because she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. But when she backtracked from calling on leaving the European Union — the famous Frexit after Brexit — when she canceled her call to leave the Eurozone, the single currency for most of the European Union member states, then she became a worthy opponent, someone to be considered as a legitimate, what you call in French, présidentiable, a person who could become eventually a president.
Macron knew that if he went head on with people like Jean Luc Mélenchon, who’s coming from a tradition of the historic Socialist Party, and leftwing, left-leaning socio economic policies, there was going to be debate on the reforms Emmanuel Macron passed, which failed to materialize in true trickle down economics. He would have had a hard time challenging Jean Luc Mélenchon, because Jean Luc Mélenchon, though he’s got many flaws, was good on these issues, and could push back against Macron.
In the case of Marine Le Pen? No, it was very easy. The only difference between the both of them is not even identity politics, it’s how identity politics is framed. That’s it. But the policies, ultimately, were the same.
Speaking about this police union, Alliance Police, it is also a notable episode here. Alliance Police is a police union close to the hard right, if not the far right. It has become the main, or at least one of the main police unions, the ones that are constantly lobbying the government for more police powers, less accountability, more use of weapons, etc. And Alliance Police, right in the midst of, I think, the first night or the second night of the uprisings, Alliance spoke in terms that, honestly, it was the most primitive racist language you could come up [with] from 19th century colonial France, literally.
I’m going to give you a few excerpts: “In the face of these barbaric hordes, we must impose our will. This is not a time for union action, but for a fight against the undesirables. We are at war, and the government better take note.”
We have to put this in light of how Macron has shut down several NGOs just for challenging racism, Islamophobia, or for representing Muslim communities. They didn’t even challenge the Republic or the government. They were just about organizing specific segments of the population.
This union published this press release and nothing was discussed about it, at least in mainstream media. They were only upset about many representatives coming from the left refusing to dismiss the uprisings, and calling out police brutality before the events and after. And I think Emmanuel Macron was in favor of it. We have to remember that he refused to call out Marine Le Pen for representing a party that was set up by admirers of the Vichy regime; the Vichy regime which had welcomed and collaborated with the Nazis. The cofounders of the Front National — now National Rally — are notorious Vichyites.
And the fact that the current Minister of Interior, Gérald Darmanin, actually called out Marine Le Pen, quote-unquote, saying, “You are too soft on Islam, not Islamism, and I mean, my words, Islam,” end of quote.
So, yes, the far right and the right have been fanning the flames of identity politics, and Emmanuel Macron has not done anything to challenge that, unfortunately.
MH: You know, the French police have a very checkered history, to put it lightly, in terms of brutality against protests, particularly against minorities in France. And there’s one particular incident which I find very shocking, and I think a lot of Americans don’t know about, which is the 1961 massacre of French Algerians that took place by the French police.
Can you talk a bit about that incident, and the legacy of it? And it seems to me that the legacy of it is very lightly acknowledged in France at all, given the scale of what took place.
YL: Well, first, the 17th of October, 1961, massacre had actually been forgotten by mainstream politics for decades, nobody ever spoke about it. But when Maurice Papon, the orchestrator of this massacre, was being tried for his role in the deportation of Jews — I will come back to that in a second — then people started mentioning, oh yeah, you know, on the 17th of October 1961, Maurice Papon had ordered the killing of peaceful unarmed Algerian demonstrators in Paris for daring to demonstrate in favor of Algerian independence.
So, we had a rally organized, actually, out of Nanterre, where Nahel is from … what a coincidence. We had demonstrators crossing the bridge towards Paris and, as they were marching with their flags, etc., towards the capital city, the police was sent to crush them. Statistics put the number of victims at around 300 people getting killed in one night. Bodies piled so much that the police dumped them in the Seine River, and no one in Paris actually stood between the police and these Algerians.
But the person who orchestrated this massacre, Maurice Papon, one could beg the question: Where is this guy coming from and who allowed him to do that? Well, first I’m going to remind [listeners of] the genesis of our modern day police in France.
The police as we know it today, the Police Nationale, centralized in Paris under the direct authority of the Ministry of Interior, was founded on the 23rd of April, 1941. The decree that signed the foundation of this police is Philippe Pétain, the famous white dude with a white mustache, who shook Hitler’s hand and collaborated with him.
The first — between 15 quotation marks — accomplishments of the French police under the leadership of a dark ideologue called René Bousquet. René Bousquet, heading the police, went to the SS in France, their head being Carl Oberg, and told him, the police can be of great help. His first accomplishment in 1942 was the rounding up of Jews in the Vel’ d’Hiv circus and handing them over to Nazi Germany.
After that episode in 1945, the police was never purged. That’s the taboo in France, and that’s why we never celebrate the birth of the French police. No one was sacked, no one was held accountable, the police was never purged. And, among the people who rounded Jews in the southwest of France, Maurice Papon was kept in place, found himself heading the police in Paris, and then, of course, if you’ve been OK with deporting thousands of innocents because they are Jews, it won’t be a problem to kill Algerians by the hundreds, especially in the midst of the conflict in Algeria.
I had a heated debate a couple of days ago on TRT World with a conservative columnist, because she couldn’t make the connection between today’s violence with the genesis of the police. Well, it’s in direct continuity. If you don’t purge an institution [of] its fascist elements, and you allow this ideology to be passed on from one generation to the other, so much so that the head of the police in Paris, in the midst of the Yellow Vest Movement, was called Didier Lallement. Didier Lallement was called a Nazi, a Nazi, by former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who also was a conservative under Jacques Chirac.
So, we cannot come today and say, where is this coming from, without taking a look at the deeper and darker history of the police, and seeing that the French Republic has always been OK with this type of police, and never once tried to reform it, to say the least, and turn it into a force to protect and serve. The police today, especially under Macron, is there to protect the regime, and that is why Macron will never challenge the police.
MH: So, Yasser, you’ve been documenting and observing these fault lines in French society for some time, institutionally, culturally, politically. You wrote last year an article which is quite prescient about this issue of security laws and their abuse by the police, that, “To truly reform the police, it is clear that the entire French Republic must be reformed in the process.”
Can you tell me what you meant by that, in terms of the scale and type of reforms that would need to be seen? And how could the French Republic move in a direction such that these expressions of pent-up frustration, anger, don’t explode every few years, as they are at the present?
YL: Well, I saw this coming with the state of emergency, when the government of Francois Hollande passed the state of emergency after the November 13th attack in 2015. And, during those two weeks, hundreds of raids were carried against Muslim homes, Muslim places of worship, Muslim businesses. I was in the field back then, visiting families and documenting all the brutal raids, most of which were warrantless, because the state of emergency allows the police to do so.
But with the passing of the state of emergency into law — which made it permanent, which means the police can raid any house without any search warrant — the passing of the law on mass surveillance in 2014, just a couple of years after these total revelations. Instead of acknowledging the dangers of mass surveillance, the French government passed a law to allow mass surveillance, among other things, demand that service providers send all your browsing and connection and downloading data to the government.
This, of course, spelled no good news. So, you have these massive powers being given to the executive branch of power, the weakening of any checks and balances. A police that has become heavily armed at disproportionate levels, minorities being used as scapegoats, and the banlieue as laboratories for repression. You also have a rise in poverty and anger among the working class.
To me, it was obvious: the regime is becoming scared of the people. They needed a scapegoat to justify the passing of these measures. Had the government said, we are going to pass these extreme measures against the majority of the population, all French people would have said, hell to the no. But, when you pass these laws against Blacks and Arabs and Muslims, those who have almost no representation in the halls of power, no representation in the media, many people felt, well, it’s OK. Like, you know, who cares about these people? These laws now are being used against the Yellow Vest Movement, the pension reform, etc.
The fact that I spoke of the police as unreformable, if the word exists in English, is because the police, as we know it today, is only the most vulgar reflection of how French institutions are authoritarians, over centralized, and gangrened with the racist legacy of colonization.
We have to remember that the birth of the police was in 1941 under Vichy, but we can’t reform this police unless we adopt a new republic. Why? Because, since the French Revolution in 1789, we have had, so far, five iterations of the republic, which means the passing of five republics based on a new constitution. The constitution under which we live today was passed in 1958, and it was passed through a coup d’etat in favor of Charles de Gaulle, who wanted to come back to power.
This constitution is not really a constitution for a democratic republic; it’s more a compromise between a monarchy and a republic. The president, yes, gets elected by universal suffrage. However, the president chooses his prime minister, can dismiss the national assembly, can pass bills without going before a parliament. He’s legally unaccountable. He’s head of the army, etc., etc.
So, at the same time, we have a justice system that is not fully independent. The prosecutor, for example, is designated by the Ministry of Justice, part of the executive branch of power. So, here, already, we don’t have a separation of powers. And you add to it that the National Assembly especially is not capable of keeping the government in check. Why? Because today, the National Assembly, who are MPs who vote and debate — or supposedly debate — legislation, are unable today to challenge the government. Another example that I spoke about earlier: they couldn’t vote for or against the pension reform, because the president said “no vote,” right?
So, with these weak checks and balances, when we have an over centralized republic, when we have no separation between the three branches of power, and, on top of it — the fourth power being the media — is 90 percent [in] the hands of about ten billionaires: How in the world can we expect to have a functioning democracy, where a president gets elected and does whatever he wants as long as he remains in power? A weak parliament that just passes legislation at the will of the president, and not just a system to at least keep the government under control.
So, that’s why the police cannot be reformed unless we reform the republic.
MH: Yasser, thanks so much for joining us today.
YL: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
MH: That was Yasser Louati, a French political analyst and human rights advocate based in Paris. He is currently the head of the Committee for Justice and Liberties. A transnational human rights and civil liberties organization.
[Intercepted end-show theme music.]
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