What is propelling the protests in France?

Major protests in France are going into their third week now with no end in sight. 

The country had just been getting past the widespread demonstrations that were going strong at the beginning of the year over the pension reform bill.

In the latest protests, thousands of people have been arrested. 

But what ignited the most recent protests in Paris and the rest of the country?

Read on for our breakdown of the latest. 

1) What ignited the protests to begin with?

On June 27, a 17-year-old Black youth of Algerian and Moroccan heritage named Nahel Merzouk was shot by police during a traffic stop. 

The Economist reported that the Merzouk was driving a rented car and had failed to obey orders to stop. 

The event—which took place in Nanterre, a suburb near Paris—spurred the eruption of large protests across the country as well as in overseas French countries. 

Footage of the incident that was captured by a passerby showed two officers standing on the driver’s side of the car, one of whom discharged his gun towards the driver even though he didn’t seem to face any immediate threat.

The officer said he fired his gun because he was scared the boy would run someone over with the car, Nanterre prosecutor Pascal Prache said.

Prache stated that it is believed the officer acted illegally in using his weapon. He is currently facing a formal investigation for “intentional homicide” and has been placed in preliminary detention.

2) Protests in France have been a pattern this year 

Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron had given himself 100 days to heal the country and reset his presidency after weeks of protests against unpopular pension reforms this past January. 

These fresh new protests over police brutality will likely put any healing on pause. Anger has also been fueled by the fact that Macron attended an Elton John concert “as cars burned and buildings were defaced across the country,” CNN reported. 

“The French government is working to avoid a repeat of 2005, when the deaths of two teenage boys hiding from police set off a state of emergency amid three weeks of rioting,” the media outlet said. 

3) The latest unrest has prompted a crisis response from the French President 

Macron held an emergency meeting with ministers in an attempt to bridge divisions and unite the country, as per CNN

He also cut short his attendance at a European Council summit in Brussels a couple of weeks ago. 

Media outlets reported that the president announced a ban on all “large-scale events” in France, including “celebratory events and numerous gatherings,” and urged parents to keep their children at home, saying many of those detained were young.

On July 6, Macron discussed the possibility of cutting off certain social media during the protests as he said that demonstrators were using apps like Snapchat, TikTok, and Telegram to film violent events and organize illegal gatherings, as per EuroNews

“We need to reflect on social media use among the youngest [and] on the prohibitions we must put in place,” Macron said in a video according to some French and international media who have seen the media. 

“When things get out of hand, perhaps you have to put yourself in a position to regulate or cut them,” the President also said.

There has also been a ban on demonstrations in some cities, as well as travel warnings. But despite the ban, demonstrations in Paris went ahead on July 8. 

4) The French government has been trying to crack down on the protests 

The country has embarked on cracking down on the protests: it has been reported that more than 40,000 police officers were mobilized to patrol cities across the country. 

Since the protests began, more than 2,000 people have been detained and more than 500 police officers and gendarmes have been injured, according to CNN calculations based on numbers released by the Interior Ministry.

“In Paris alone, 5,000 security personnel were deployed. Officers were given powers to quell riots, make arrests, and ‘restore republican order,’” said French Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin.

Euro News reported on Monday that days of riots culminated in 850 people being arrested on the weekend of July 1st. Since then, the most serious unrest seems to have abated.

5) Merzouk’s death—what his family is calling murder—taps into anger over the racial bias that is prevalent in the country 

The protests have reignited a debate on over-policing marginalized communities in the country.

Overseas French territories have also witnessed violent protests. Media outlets reported that a man was killed by a “stray bullet” in Cayenne—the capital of French Guiana—during the first week of the riots.

Police have also detained at least 28 people in riots in Réunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, according to authorities there.

Thibaud, a middle-school teacher from Strasbourg, told The Guardian that he feels conflicted about the wave of protest, but that he can also empathize with the overwhelmingly young and male rioters.

“I can’t excuse violence, and I think it’s also very counterproductive because it will only backlash at the protesters and harm their own communities,” he said. “But I can understand why people from those neighborhoods, especially the young ones, are so outraged. The trust is broken and it has been worsening for the past few years.”

Protesters have been carrying signs that read “The Police Kill.” Hundreds of government buildings have also been damaged in response to Nahel’s death over a succession of nights across mainland France, but also in its overseas territories. 

Yassine Bouzrou, who is a lawyer for the Merzouk family, has said they want the police officer prosecuted for murder instead of manslaughter.

“I lost a child of 17-years-old. They took my baby,” Merzouk’s mother said in a TikTok video.

On July 8, France24 reported that a judge extended the detention of the police officer after initial findings were released about the inquiry of the fatal shooting. 

6) The United Kingdom and Germany have warned prospective travelers to keep an eye on the situation before making plans to visit France

Around 17 million UK citizens visit France every year, says EuroNews

The UK government’s advice to potential travelers as of Monday, July 10 advises:  “While the situation is now calm, you should monitor the media, check the latest advice with operators when traveling and follow the advice of the authorities.”

Similarly, on July 10, the German Foreign Office also urged vacationers to stay informed and avoid areas where violent riots could be happening. 

The warnings follow a security alert from the US state department last month, which also urged its citizens to avoid trouble hotspots.

Also read: Mass protests are paralyzing Israel. Here’s what you need to know about the controversial bill that was passed

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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