Violent clashes are spreading across France’s suburbs, where residents say police have been heavy-handed in their enforcement of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown.
For several nights now, tensions have spilled onto the streets of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods – leading to violent standoffs between police and locals.
Marie, a resident of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, about 12 km north of Paris, says the youth in her town are “very angry”
“They want to be the law and take justice into their own hands,” she said.
Locals say they want justice for the 30-year-old motorcyclist injured last week in an incident with police that triggered this new wave of violence.
On Saturday, April 18, the man’s motorbike collided with an unmarked police car. A video shot just after the crash showing the biker lying on the ground has been viewed several million times on social media. In it, residents can be seen accusing the police of deliberately opening the door of their vehicle to hit the biker.
The incident ignited tensions in the Paris suburbs of Seine-Saint-Denis and Hauts-de-Seine. But clashes have since spread further to Roubaix, in the north of France, and Limoges, in the centre of the country.
“We are the ones carrying the country these days. We are the ones still working to keep the economy going. But the state doesn’t respect us and doesn’t give us the means to live decently.
Mohsen Troudi Resident of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, France
A repeat of the 2005 ‘days of rage’?
France’s government is said to be monitoring the situation, but when Interior Minister Christophe Castaner spoke about it on TV, he said the current unrest doesn’t compare with the riots of 2005.
“These are tensions that are not of an exceptional level of severity,” he said, though he acknowledged that the violence was spreading.
“If this goes on, Villeneuve-la-Garenne could well become the epicentre of a new French suburbs revolution,” says Mohsen Troudi, who has lived in the town for most of his life.
He told Euronews that Saturday’s incident is just a sample of what youth in France’s suburbs have been experiencing for a long time.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back because there have been many more incidents. We have a young guy who lives here who was shot at eight times because he refused to be checked by police. We have many such cases,” Troudi said.
As he spoke, a dozen other young male residents of the suburb watched – several wearing masks or gloves, all standing 1.5 metres from each other.
“Confinement rules are better observed here than elsewhere in Paris,” said Troudi. “And we are the ones carrying the country these days. We are the ones still working to keep the economy going. But the state doesn’t respect us and doesn’t give us the means to live decently.”
Immigrant suburbs: home to France’s ‘essential workers’
Paris suburbs are home to disenfranchised minorities that have been largely unable to stay at home throughout the lockdown because they make up a large proportion of so-called essential workers: supermarket cashiers, security personnel, truck drivers or cleaners.
These days, they carry their fears with them in crowded public transportation to and from work. Due to a reduction in services, buses and tramways remain packed – and they know that on the commute, they risk catching the virus and bringing it back to the cramped apartments they share with their families.
Others have lost their jobs or are unable to conduct the informal economic activities that previously enabled them to feed their families. For them, the lockdown has been compounding economic and social woes.
“In working-class neighbourhoods, this public health crisis doubled up with a social crisis. And we perhaps failed to anticipate the impact,” says Olivier Klein, the mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois.
“To stay at home and stop working – even informal jobs – it accentuates the hardship. When school canteens stopped here in Clichy, for the families you see here, the meals used to cost €1 – and we know that in reality, to cook for one children doesn’t cost just €1.”
For that reason, food banks have multiplied in these districts.
“People may not be able to fulfil their needs. So our idea was to respond to this emergency, which is first and foremost a food emergency because people need to feed themselves,” said Mohamed Mechmache, from the charity AC Le Feu, which has been distributing meals to hundreds of Clichy residents twice a week.
France’s interior minister said he understood that “exacerbated poverty was making people angry”. But Clichy Mayor Olivier Klein contends that “violence is never the answer”.
“I can understand the anger, I can understand the mobilisation,” Klein says. “But when we lash out at our neighbour’s car, or the trash cans of our building, or – like I saw the other night – a school, it’s unbearable and unacceptable. (…) When there’s an accident, justice must be done and we need to wait for justice to be done. Violence against anyone is unacceptable. And above all, it only serves to stigmatise these neighborhoods.”
Bad press is precisely what Troudi and his friends are trying to avoid. He says they’re all appealing for calm – and so has the man injured in last week’s accident.
But Troudi also says locals have a right to speak out: “Perhaps for the French elite we are second-class citizens, but our DNA is French and we are protesting to defend our rights – mainly to be able to live. That’s all. Because for years now, especially in these neighborhoods, police come in, hit us and don’t even read us our rights.”
In March, a coalition of rights groups including Human Rights Watch denounced “unacceptable and illegal behaviour” by police in the Paris suburbs, saying the health crisis “doesn’t mean a break with the rule of law and doesn’t justify discriminatory checks or unjustified use of force”.
Their joint statement noted that such abuses “are common, and rarely punished” in France.
“For years, we’ve lived with repression and excessive force in police checks. And for the time being, this doesn’t seem like it’s going to change,” a young man who has been filming the clashes night after night told Euronews.
He didn’t want to reveal his identity for fear of police reprisals but says the recent wave of urban violence could be an opportunity to restart relations and, perhaps, work on healing old wounds.
“For me, these are not riots just for the sake of rioting,” he said.
“What’s happening in these districts is a cry for help – to the government, to the state, to the president. It might not be the best way to do it, but it’s the only way for many here to be heard.”