The police killing of a young black man has sparked heated exchanges, including within the Jewish community, about whether French institutions are inherently racist.
The values that have underpinned the French Republic for more than two centuries are today under unprecedented pressure. What once seemed self-evident certainties in a country that has always insisted it is race- and colour-blind are being challenged in the wake of a series of high-profile police killings of young men of colour that are increasingly galvanising public debate.
In 2016, a young black man, Adama Traoré, died by asphyxiation while in custody, eerily prefigured the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in the US. Tensions between people of North African descent and the police are acute at the best of times, and it doesn’t take much for them to ignite into violence.
The most recent protests took place in June this year, in the wake of the point-blank shooting of a 17-year-old man called Nahel Merzouk, who tried to drive off when he was stopped by police officers while joyriding a rental Mercedes in suburban Paris. The shooting was caught on a camera phone and the footage went viral within hours.
The statistics speak for themselves: since a law was passed in 2017 giving police officers power to shoot motorists who refuse to stop, even when the lives of the officers are not obviously in danger, the number of fatal police shootings of motorists has increased six-fold. The vast majority are young men of colour.
the main police unions issued a provocative joint statement claiming that the police are ‘at war’ with ‘vermin’.
A recent analysis published in the Financial Times suggested that the probability of being stopped and searched on the street in France is higher for a young man of North African extraction by a factor of almost eight, relative to white people. (By comparison, in London the probability is between two and three times higher.) This, in the country whose motto is Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – the country that invented human rights.
Nahel’s killing reignited the debate about whether or not French institutions – both the police and within wider society – are beset with structural racism. President Emmanuel Macron rejected the charge, claiming that the problem is just a few bad apples in the police force. Yet in the wake of the days and nights of rioting that followed, the main police unions issued a provocative joint statement claiming that the police are “at war” with “vermin” – the kind of debased language that cannot but be associated with the Nazis.
Indeed, three quarters of police officers are estimated to support Marine Le Pen’s far-Right Rassemblement National (National Rally). The country’s interior minister, Gerard Darmanin, remained vocally supportive of the police throughout, as parts of the country burned.
President Macron, who has presided over, among other things, the dissolution of the traditional left- and right-wing parties that have governed France throughout most of the twentieth century, has another three and a half years to serve. Already people are talking about the distinct possibility that Le Pen could become president at the next election in 2027.
universalism, the ideological basis of Jewish emancipation, is now being repudiated by militant anti-racist collectives.
Nahel was killed in Nanterre, a suburb a few miles to the west of Paris, just a few hundred metres from the bustling business district of La Défense and the site of the university where the original May 1968 protests began. It is also the location of the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation and the Resistance, which was vandalised on the same day as Nahel’s murder during demonstrations that turned violent within hours, leading to the torching of cars and looting of shops that have become familiar tropes of French protests, with billions of euros of damage incurred.
The graffiti scrawled on the memorial in French read, “Police scum, from Sainte Soline to Nanterre. No forgetting, no forgiveness.” There was no mention of Jews, but news outlets, particularly Jewish and Israeli ones, were quick to pick up on the symbolism.
Unlike after Adama Traouré’s murder, prominent Jewish organisations, including the principal Jewish umbrella organisation, the Crif, have remained silent during the latest protests. But for some years now, universalism, the ideological basis of Jewish emancipation and a dogma to which Jews have, largely, loyally adhered for two centuries, is now being vocally repudiated by militant anti-racist collectives.
They argue that this ideology is inadequate for the purpose of fighting inequality in what their supporters believe to be a society deeply riven by systemic racism. The Crif has always forcefully insisted on its commitment to the values of the Republic, inevitably putting it at odds with those making such arguments.
On July 16, three weeks after Nahel was killed, on the anniversary of the 1942 round-up of Jews in Paris by French police, the National Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Racist and Antisemitic Crimes was commemorated in Paris. Speaking about the rise of antisemitism at the ceremony, the president of the Crif, Yonathan Arfi, declared that “the spokespersons for [far-Left party] la France insoumise (France Unbowed) are a part of the problem rather than the solution.”
Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of la France Insoumise, responded on Twitter that afternoon by calling the Crif – founded as a Resistance movement during World War II – a far-right organisation, which aroused understandable fury among Jews. Arfi retorted that Melenchon leads a party that no longer adheres to Republican values, and in doing so gives strength to the far Right.
Other parties on the Left are similarly charged with the taint of antisemitism. An ongoing polemic was triggered by the Green Party ahead of its conference this summer over its decision to invite the controversial rapper Médine – who has attracted criticism over tweets and statements over the years construed as antisemitic – to speak.
Parties on the far Right, the traditional stronghold of antisemitism, are also drawing criticism. On July 30th, polemicist Pierre Hillard told the audience at the party conference of the far-Right Catholic organisation Civitas, that before the French Revolution of 1789, Jews and other religious minorities could not become French citizens because they were “heretics”. He went on to say that “maybe we should go back to how things were before 1789.” Within days the party was dissolved at the order of interior minister Darmanin.
The perception of Jewish privilege on both Left and Right has placed the Jewish community in a potentially precarious position within wider society.
A 2022 survey designed by the Fondation pour l’innovation politique and the American Jewish Committee, and conducted by the IFOP Institute, showed that both antisemitic opinions across all sectors of French society and antisemitic attacks on French soil are on the increase.
The majority of Jews in France have always and unhesitatingly cleaved to the values of the Republic, and in continuing to do so today, they are widely perceived as being part of the white demographic of wealth, power and privilege, pitting them against other religious and ethnic minorities, at the same time as they remain one of the traditional focuses of attack, both verbal and physical, by the far Right.
The perception of Jewish privilege on both Left and Right, together with the upsurge in antisemitic attacks, has placed the Jewish community in a potentially precarious position within wider society, while this summer’s febrile atmosphere is only likely to intensify the discourse around identity politics that might one day – perhaps sooner rather than later – shake the very foundations of the Republic.
Photo: Demonstrators hold up smoke flares during a protest in memory of 17-year-old Nahel, who was killed by French police, in Paris, France, 30 June 2023. (EPA/Mohammed Badra)