Virginie Martin: How the death of Nahel M. inflamed an already embattled France

The riots in France should be seen against the backdrop of Emmanuel Macron’s failure to offer solutions or even a coherent narrative to the country’s working class.

Cross-posted from The Conversation Europe

Picture by thierry llansades

The events that have shaken France since the June 27 death of young Nahel M., shot by the police during a traffic stop, come during the “100 days” of appeasement announced on April 17 by President Emmanual Macron after his government forced through his controversial pension-reform law.

In view of current events, the announced “appeasement” seems to be no more than a word. As long as it doesn’t take concrete form, political discourse remains disappointing and fuels mistrust toward political leaders. For example, the 2012 vow of then socialist presidential candidate François Hollande to oppose the forces of finance (in his words: “My adversary is the world of finance”) is remembered by the country’s left-wing electorate as a defining proof of his failure.

These words are supposed to be illocutionary – “when saying is doing”. But words are not always followed by deeds, and as a new Cevipof poll shows, in France, mistrust of politicians is growing.

Moreover, it’s a delicate balancing act to be in favour of ‘appeasement’ while at the same time – and for months now – pursuing a policy that is seen by a number of French citizens as rather confrontational, as shown by the pensions-reform process. Even before the May demonstrations, at the end of April, 65% of French people considered Emmanuel Macron to be “brutal”.

This context was also marred by another event: the ‘Marianne’ fund affair. Named after an association set up to honour the memory of the teacher Samuel Paty, who was brutally murdered in 2020, this scandal alone contains several explosive elements fuelling discredit toward the Macron government and for good reason – secularism, misappropriated public subsidies and the name of a minister, Marlène Schiappa, still in office despite the scandal.

These events have led to an unprecedented drop in the polls: while Macron is still perceived by some as a skilful technocrat, perceptions of his competence are dropping fast. According to the Odoxa poll cited above, only 36% of French people consider him competent – down 13% since May 2022.

The “little phrases” that spark the flame

While French neighborhoods burn, Macron’s presidency seems to be continuing along a line that remains relatively indifferent to the perceptions and emotions of the public. Despite a few apologies between his two terms in office, he continues to pepper his speechs with ‘little phrases’ – off-the-cuff remarks that spark mistrust and anger among regular citizens. These have included references to “people who are nothing” to “crazy money”, “crossing the street”, “factionalists”, “the mob”, “rebellious Gauls”, “decivilisation” and most recently, that he was able to “find ten jobs in the Old Port” of Marseilles in a single visit.

These little phrases nurture negative perceptions of Macron’s character. Rather than empathy, the president of the Republic is seen as showing class contempt. Beyond the policies pursued, these catchphrases reflect his image and are part of a way of doing things that is full of paradox between the emotion felt and the regular desire to appease.

During his visit to Marseille, on the death of Nahel, the president declared:

“I want to express the emotion of the entire nation and tell his family of all the affection of the nation […] we have a teenager who has been killed, it is inexplicable, inexcusable.”

A day later riots broke out, and Macron immediately blamed them on video games, social networks and parents. He strongly supported the country’s police and security forces, backing up Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. There were no words of support or compassion for the working-class neighbourhoods, even those suffering most from the riots.

It is against this already fraught backdrop that the death of Nahel M. comes as the latest decisive marker in a general policy that is already much maligned, and even more so in the context of urban policy.

City policy

In 2017, Emmanuel Macron promised an end to house arrest for difficult neighbourhoods.

However, in 2018, he himself torpedoed the Borloo plan. In this plan, the former urban minister presented him with measures such as the launch of educational estates, the “reconquest of the Republic”, the reactivation of the National Agency for Urban Renewal (ANRU), support toward employment for young residents in neighbourhoods covered by the Urban Policy (QPV).

This ambitious €5 billion report was nevertheless quickly buriedby Macron during his first term. But what was perhaps most shocking were his blunt remarks when the plan was presented:

“That two white males [Julien Denormandie, Minister for Urban Affairs, and Jean-Louis Borloo] who do not live in these neighbourhoods should exchange a report, with the other saying ‘I’ve been given a plan’, I discovered… It’s not true. It doesn’t work like that any more.”

“The people who live in these neighbourhoods are the actors in these issues. They want to do things, they have many of the solutions […] These people need to be given status […] to be helped to succeed.”

The harshness of the comments, particularly toward Jean-Louis Borloo, is clear, and Macron is clumsily trying to say – perhaps – that it is up to the people concerned to take their future into their own hands, to express their needs…

While a large part of Borloo’s programme has since been put in place, the link between neighbourhoods and the executive doesn’t seem to have been established, nor are we seeing any “start-up suburbs”. Even in November 2020, in a delicate context of confinement, 110 mayors questioned the president about the situation of working-class neighbourhoods, difficult even then.

The 2022 plan called ‘Quartiers 2030’ shows signs of a desire to (re)take these areas and their residents into consideration. As the presidential campaign did not really take place, these issues were not addressed. Emmanuel Macron then tried to make up for this shortcoming and stated, during this sequence, “that working-class neighbourhoods are an opportunity for our Republic”.

On 24 May 2023, however, Macron was yet again alerted by some 30 elected representatives who wanted an emergency plan for the suburbs.

The president’s trip to Marseille to visit some difficult housing estates did nothing to change the situation or bring lasting peace. He did say that he wanted to “transform anger into a project”, but his words fell a flat when faced with the extent of drug trafficking, a mother mourning her son and the decline of public services on the ground. 

Nahel’s death turned anger into riots.

The left-right divide

Another factor is the left-right divide. By trying to triangulate – taking ideas from the opposing camp while minimising the ideological dimension – Emmanuel Macron has introduced confusion into the policies and objectives to be achieved.

What was the executive’s line on working-class neighbourhoods in reality? A more public-service line in the French tradition of a welfare state? A more start-up-Uber line, present in Macron’s book Revolution, or a more authoritarian line embodied by his Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin?

Remember that Darmanin’s view is that Marine Le Pen is too softon immigration issues. We also remember – on societal issues – Jean-Michel Blanquer, then Minister for Education, holding a conference at the Sorbonne against ‘wokism’? Aren’t these chin wagging, these political symbols creating too much confusion?

This ‘at the same time’ – one of Macron’s favourite turns of phrase – is muddying the waters. A blurring that has contributed to the weakening of the divide, a weakening that suffocates democracy and automatically radicalises opposition – to oppose the president, it’s mechanically necessary to go further to the right and further to the left.

With Macron siphoning off the left and the traditional right, the hope of a party or candidate that can win power is destroyed, and citizens feel handcuffed in an untenable situation.

It should be noted that all these elements were already apparent during the 2017 presidential election. We could see two France very clearly. Today, they still exist. Like a fault line, and with a challenge to reconcile and make ‘common’ that seems a long way off.

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