Let’s Talk About France: A story of mitigation

Recent days have witnessed fiery exchanges on the streets of Paris, in the media and in our private lives. Information and accusations flared in all directions.   The Left saw in the events the ultimate proof of embedded discrimination in the state repressive machine, police brutality and the suppression of minority rights, triggering a natural reaction of rebellion against social injustice and generalised lack of opportunity for the underprivileged groups. The Islamists, and any country at odds with France’s foreign policy and colonial past, rushed to share their view.   The right-wingers saw a confirmation that an accelerated and unrestrained immigration of large populations of heterogeneous background could only lead to a crumbling of social order and of the state. Obviously, the perpetrators could only be ungrateful newcomers of doubtful background, incapable of understanding the civilisational objectives of law and order.   The anarchists blamed it on the organised government, which inescapably ends as a Leviathan devouring its subjects. The anti-war camp blamed it on the irrational support for Ukraine, the anti-establishment on the globalist élites and a Macron sold out to the big corporations.   The Eurosceptics blamed it on the euro, the loss of sovereignty by France, and EU’s imposition of demented migration policies. The disenchanted saw this as another facet of Macron’s diabolical nature, while the anti-anti-establishment saw the hand of external forces meddling in France’s internal affairs with no other purpose than to create chaos and destabilise the country as a punishment for seeking a sovereigntist position on the world arena.   All these verdicts are true and false at the same time.   In the fog of media war, only one thing is certain: the 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk is dead, shot through his heart. There is no rationalisation possible on any moral or ethical grounds to justify this summary execution and the heartbreak of a mother who lost her only child.  

Who was Nahel Merzouk?

Nahel has been described by most as a ‘Franco-Algerian’ teenager who never knew his father and was raised by his mother alone. Neighbours described him as nice and obliging.   The ‘Algerian’ label has been hastily affixed by a media that never bothered to research the formal identity of the boy, in order to drag the discussion into the emotional and thus easily manipulable realm of racist bias. Jumping at the opportunity to fuel its grudge against the French, the Algerian Government rushed to release a statement demanding clarifications in this case concerning one of its ‘nationals’. However, no evidence has ever been presented to suggest that the boy was not born and raised in France.   Nahel and his mother lived in a barre—a huge, long-lined building in a part of town infamously known in France as la cité or la zone. Despite the Greek resonance suggesting a megalopolis, a barre is actually an overcrowded mass of low-income residents, most of them from a migratory background. That alone tells any person with an average knowledge of France’s sociological realities where the boy likely stood on the social scale and what his daily preoccupations might have been.   Nahel had recently dropped out of school and was earning his keep as a pizza delivery boy. This characterisation is meant to raise our sympathy, while not a word is whispered in the polite media about Nahel’s delinquent past and his flirting with the world of drugs and gangs at only 17 years old.   Nahel was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic check following a car chase and a refusal to comply. For the overseas reader, it must be pointed out that the driving age in France is 18. He was driving a Mercedes A-class, and no-one seems to wonder how a 17-year old from a low-income family gets to drive a Mercedes. It was borrowed, we are told.   The known facts stop here, but we can still ask some questions and make some assumptions about the interplay of identities, perceptions and resentments within French society. Was Nahel more French than Algerian, and does that matter to what happened next? Did living in France mean anything to him, other than probably that this was the only place he ever knew? Is it even relevant for the events whether he was French or Algerian—or was this a social class conflict?  

Algerian immigration to France: then and now

To anyone remotely familiar with the nature and depths of the battered Franco-Algerian relationship, the events of the last few weeks come as no surprise. They are merely the continuation of a pattern of behaviour which sees, time and again, the less powerful rip through the dictates of social norms, sometimes with incredible violence, in a desperate attempt to compensate for their self-perceived powerlessness and end injustice. That, of course, presupposes that the mob has a plan, a shared purpose, and a common will.   On the other side, we have an oppressor that does not perceive itself as such, and that assimilated for generations the bitterness, violence, misapprehension and fear of the ‘other’, whose motives and means it does not fully comprehend.   Challenging the view that President Macron’s globalist policies and recent authoritarianism created this crisis, or that it is somehow the result of social inequalities specific to post-pandemic times, facts indicate a repetitive and persistent pattern of social unrest in France over time. The turmoil always ignites in the poorer neighbourhoods of big cities and always involves a significant percentage of the migration-born population, although not limited to it.   Looking at the rebellion landscape of twenty-first-century France, we find:
  • The October–November 2005 uprising, involving youths in violent attacks burning cars and public buildings. The trigger was the accidental death by electrocution of two boys—Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré—fleeing police attempting an identity check. Interviewed by Associated Press, protesters declared that the unrest was an expression of frustration with high unemployment, police harassment and brutality. “People are joining together to say we've had enough,” said one protester. “We live in ghettos. Everyone lives in fear.”
  • The 2007 riots ignited in the Val-d’Oise département (another Paris suburb inhabited by a mostly migrant population) following the deaths of two teenagers (Moushin S., 15, and Larami S., 16), whose motorcycle collided with a police vehicle. Both victims and most rioters were of North African descent. Cars and buildings were burned, including a library, two schools, a police station, and several shops.
  • In 2009, a series of riots took place on Bastille Day in the commune of Montreuil, an eastern suburb of Paris, following the death of a young Algerian man, Mohamed Benmouna, in police custody. French youths set fire to 317 cars and thirteen police officers were injured.
  • In July 2013, riots broke out in Trappes, a Parisian suburb, after the police arrested a man who assaulted a police officer who had tried to check the identity of his wife wearing a Muslim veil.
  • In July 2014, a pro-Palestinian protest against the Israeli ground invasion of Gaza degenerated into an anti-Semitic riot in Sarcelles, a northern suburb of Paris. Jewish-owned and non-Jewish-owned businesses were attacked and looted by local youths armed with metal bars and wooden clubs.
  • In 2017, protests started, following accusations of a police officer having sodomised a young black man with a baton. Anti-police protests continued well into March 2017, when migrants were met with resistance from Parisians.
In reality, the tensions between French law enforcement and Frenchmen of Algerian descent go a long way back, to the time when Algeria was part of France. The most noteworthy and horrific episode was probably the events remembered in history as the 1961 Paris massacre. On that occasion, the Paris police killed hundreds of protesters of the National Liberation Front of Algeria by heavy-handed beatings and mass drownings, as police officers threw demonstrators into the Seine.   Those appalled by the ghastly nature of the crime should bear in mind that the period leading up to these events had witnessed constant taunting, harassment and often killings of law enforcement officers by Algerian rebels. Algerian terrorism had permeated all layers of French society, and the era saw not less than three attempts on the life of the then-President of the Republic, Charles de Gaulle.   The events of 17 October 1961 were the peak of tensions and attacks as retribution in metropolitan (mainland) France for the killings committed by the French in Algeria, during what was for the former the Algerian War and for the latter the War of Independence (1954–1962). While the brutality of French forces and the million Algerian deaths severely affected France’s reputation in the world and led to the fall of the Fourth Republic, the ruthless methods employed by the Algerian independence fighters were often none the softer.   Hundreds of thousands were killed, tortured or displaced, including many Muslim Algerians—the harkis, accused of collaboration with the colonial authorities. In one of the more horrid episodes of the war, the atrocities of Al-Halia, some pied- noir European residents, having lived for generations in Algeria, were raped and disembowelled, while children were murdered by having their throats slit or their heads banged against walls. These images remained etched in the memory of generations of French, who find it difficult to this day to find a moral justification for such actions.   Against this backdrop of mutual distrust, one could only wonder what impels large cohorts of Algerians, still today, to come in steady flows to France every year. What are they seeking? Are they asylum seekers or economic migrants? Are they here for Europe’s ‘values’ and to ‘integrate’ into Western society, or are they after a more comfortable life? And how does that pan out against the background of a blood-spattered past and accusations of imperialism, racism, war crimes and the general disdain of the metropolitan French for their ‘civilisationally inferior’ former colony?  

EU intercession: divine intervention or reckless interference?

Seen by many as an empire of evil or an unnecessary bureaucratic burden, the EU has been, for most of its history, a taming influence on its member states. By seeking to establish the lowest common denominator among all its members, the EU has often played an appeasing role in the relationship between its members and their past or their partners. Its Charter of Fundamental Rights, though sometimes more honoured in the breach than in the observance, equally abhors colonialism and mistreatment of minorities.   As I was positing in my last article for UK Column, the EU is nobody and is all of us. When people say “Brussels has decided”, this means nothing. Brussels is merely the meeting place of nation states’ ministers and prime ministers to agree on policy lines according to their shared interests. In a system of voting based on weighted average, the bigger states manage to impose, most of the time, their national interest on the smaller ones. Migration policy, climate change or the fate of the Eurozone represent mostly the will of élites in France, Germany, Spain or Italy, although some smaller but politically agile members like the Netherlands, Sweden or Poland can, in certain areas of particular interest, impose their views.   Let me dispel some myths about the EU’s migration rules.   Here is what the EU does not do: it does not tell states who or how many people to take in. It does not tell them what level of social benefits to offer, or whether to put people in hotels or in tents. No rule exists to impose a certain outcome of procedure (for example, telling states to provide a safe haven to Algerians rather than to Syrians or Turks). All these are national decisions.   Legends have been circulating regarding the supposed welfare benefits that a migrant instantly receives merely upon setting foot in Europe. Trafficking networks did well for themselves in encouraging such folklore. All over sub-Saharan Africa, the story goes that once you manage to cross the Mediterranean, you will be given housing, clothes, health assistance and money, and you will never have to work again. The rich states will take care of you. In Italy, you hear that France and Germany are the promised lands. In Germany, you learn that Sweden is the real paradise, and if in France, then it’s the UK.   Everyone remembers the migrant camp on the French coast which earned the nickname of the Calais Jungle. The place amassed at its peak around 10,000 people hoping to cross the Channel into the promised land of Britain. One could only marvel at the idea that substantial numbers of human beings would put their life at risk to cross the Mediterranean just to live on the streets of a big European city in unbearable deprivation. Even more, why would they go through such pain afresh just to move from the welfare state of France into the UK?    While the rumour circulating among migrants is that the British Government provides free housing and massive welfare benefits, a more prosaic figure by the UNHCR shows that asylum seekers were receiving about £37.75 per week in 2018, which was the almost exact amount that they would have received in France. More than that, neither country was in the top six in Europe when it comes to providing financial support, with Germany (€135/week), Greece, (€90/week), Italy (€75/week), Sweden (€70/week), Spain €50/week) and Austria (€40/week) providing more. Since then, the figures have gone up: currently, in France, the level reaches €204 per person per month. By comparison, in the UK it currently stands at £177.01 per person per month.  

The big question: Is France a fundamentally racist and unequal society?

When in 2002 the discussions of the Convention on the Future of Europe tackled the place of Christianity and religion in Europe, it was France, with its long laïque (secularist) tradition, supported by Belgium, that strongly opposed any reference to God or Christendom in what would later become the ‘Constitution for Europe’.   France’s position on that occasion was not a one-off. Rather, it has been a constant pattern of behaviour in any EU Council debate on any matter that was perceived as possibly affecting, directly or indirectly, the integration of migrant population into European society. France has been particularly keen, for decades, not to allow any trend to creep into its policies that would in any way frustrate the rights of the immigrant population.   Whether cause or effect of this policy, the fact is that currently 10% of France’s population declare themselves Muslims, and it is a fast-growing group. The same percentage of the population (10%) declare themselves practising Catholics, a figure that has been downward-spiralling since the 1960s. Arriving as I did from the Orthodox East, burgeoning with churches overflowing with the faithful on any weekday, the sight of empty historic cathedrals on holy days or village churches closed on a Sunday due to lack of priests or worshippers was a shocking revelation in my first years in the country.   France has been a main pole of attraction for migration in Europe in recent decades, occupying the third place in 2021, with 336,400 newcomers. Currently, more than 10% of France’s population has a migratory background. By comparison, in the 1960s only about 6% of the population consisted of immigrants. More than half of France's immigration originates in one of only seven countries, with Algeria coming in on top. In 2018, 13% of immigrants in France were born in Algeria; 11.9% in Morocco; 9.2% in Portugal; 4.4% in Tunisia; 4.3% in Italy; 3.8% in Turkey; and 3.7% in Spain.   France’s attractiveness for migrants has many explanations. Chief among them is the smooth processing of application files, coupled with a laissez faire attitude by the authorities—irregular migrants are seldom detained in France, officials being probably too overwhelmed by the number of applicants to be able to follow their every move. A good social benefits package complements this raft of advantages, with guaranteed lodging, health support and a nice integration package which often starts even before your status has been decided—children can attend school straight away, language classes are offered, etc.   Of the over 300,000 annual arrivals, many are seeking asylum, but most are economic migrants. A little-known fact is that EU laws and regulations treat these two categories quite differently. While ‘asylum seekers’ benefit from a very thick layer of protection and numerous rights and guarantees, the regulatory landscape of ‘economic migration’ is rather desolate. A merciless whim of fate has brought it about that a rich confluence of international covenants and European jurisprudence provides painstaking cover for anyone fleeing war and persecution, whereas those fleeing famine and sheer lack of opportunity in their home society have no place to run or hide.   As an example, when meeting arrivals at any external border of the European Union, with or without identity papers, no authority can refuse entry to the territory for an asylum seeker, not unless they wish to drag their country before the EU Court of Justice or the ECtHR at Strasbourg (the latter is not an EU court). The same cannot be said of an ‘economic migrant’. The trick is sorting out who is who, and that depends on what the person in question utters upon arrival at the border. Much hinges on the skills and training provided by the smugglers, traffickers or NGO lawyers who often accompany and support the migrants.  

Integration is key: but what does that mean in France and Europe today?

With little recognition in EU law (other than some vague general principles mostly restricted to stating that this is a nation-state, not an EU, ‘competence’), integration takes different forms in different European societies, shaped mostly by their expertise in dealing with newcomers. In member states with little to no colonial past, integration is a very dry and hard-levelling application of policy; whereas in societies with experiences of mingling with, in some cases, very heterogeneous populations from far-flung lands, the social experiment has been long, painful and enlightening.   Success in integration can be measured in many ways. A reference often used in sociological studies is school achievement. One of the most comprehensive such studies published in 2013 in France concluded that “a foreign child of a manual worker is hardly less disadvantaged than a French pupil of the same social group” (note my emphasis).   If having a migratory background does not seem to disadvantage people in their social achievement, then what does?   The same study reveals significant differences between the results of children of immigrants from various origins in terms of both school dropout and university graduation rates. The greatest difficulties seem to be experienced, in decreasing order, by children whose parents have migrated from Turkey, followed by the Sahel region, the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, Arab North Africa, and southern Europe. Children whose parents emigrated from Southeast Asia were shown to occupy, on average, the best educational position.   Mostly, integration has become a taboo word in Europe, often being made synonymous with the now-undesirable concept of ‘assimilation’. By contrast, the preferred solution of ‘inclusive societies’ which respect ‘diversity’ is to allow the migrant to cultivate the same habits, customs and social models which he experienced in his place of origin. This is the hackneyed Britain-versus-France models of integration debate. Cynics speak of assimilation versus ghettoisation, two accursed extremes. Irrespective of where one stands on this matter philosophically, when looking at lawless areas of suburban Paris or London, where no policeman dares to set foot unless he wishes to risk injury, we can mostly agree that both models have failed.   The fact of the matter—unrecognised and undebated by policymakers—is that most people do not migrate because they deplore the social model at home; they come here attracted by the Western lifestyle. Many come exclusively in search of better material conditions, and not by adherence to those social, moral or cultural values characterising the ‘Judaeo-Christian roots of European civilisation’ that were rejected by France in framing the constitutional treaty for the EU two decades ago. Most often, people prefer to conserve their own norms.   On the other hand, whether people arrive here with an economic objective or fleeing for their lives does not seem to matter for their appetite to integrate. Many people entering Europe as ‘irregular migrants’—a term which encompasses a wide variety of situations: overstaying a visa, forging a passport or passing for an undocumented asylum seeker until a linguistic expert has rumbled that the dialect of Arabic he speaks is not from war-torn Damascus but from Fez—do well in the host society and abide by its rules.   It is often the most entitled, those arriving with a sense of self-righteousness—I am from a war zone or your former colony, you did this to me, you owe it to take care of me—who often fare less well in the long run. They are frequently disgruntled and the formula on offer is often contested. This might explain why France, offering some of the most appealing social and pecuniary benefits in Europe, is often a theatre of riots and court challenges coming from the migrant population.   But social injustice is in the eye of the beholder. As an Eastern European, I remember how we used to look with covetous gaze at photos of barres such as the one in which Nahel lived with his mother, in the suburbs of some Western city where some lucky friends of ours had managed to settle. When I myself ‘migrated’ for work purposes, I learned, as EU laws would have it, that EU citizens are ‘privileged’ in terms of movement and settlement in another EU state. But why?, I asked a colleague once. By being in a familiar society, having a social network that acts as a safety net and that would not allow you to sink in case you lack education, a job or any form of income, I was told. I found the reasoning most doubtful, and argued: a Bulgarian in Paris is far more deprived of a supportive community than an Algerian, Moroccan or Senegalese. The laws impose far fewer obligations on host societies in our regard than they guarantee to even the most irregular of migrants.   Let us compare the chances of getting gainful employment that an intra-EU ‘beneficiary of free movement’ can expect with those of a non-EU immigrant. In the early 2000s, when the ‘big bang’ enlargement to the East occurred, a mechanism was established, known as the ‘2+3+2’ rule (it ended up as the ‘2+3+2+3’), allowing the ‘old’ EU member states to put in place and maintain restrictions to their labour market in respect of nationals of the new member states. Coupled with the Schengen ‘free movement’ rule, which provides that the stay beyond three months of any EU citizen in another member state should only be allowed upon proof of gainful employment, the ‘2+3+2’ rule ensured that Eastern Europeans found themselves in a thorny conundrum when trying to settle in the West. This led to many of them becoming easy prey for the labour black market and exploitation networks, and they found themselves in much more precarious material and social conditions than many non-EU immigrants, who have the right to social and unemployment benefits. Once again, the suburban barre was for these Eastern Europeans a coveted symbol of social success, and they would happily exchange their status with that of a Pakistani or a Congolese.  


The tragic story of Nahel is not the beginning and will not be the end of social unrest in France. History will, no doubt, turn these events into yet another banal account of street riots, which will eventually end up being quelled by the authorities. The Macron government will not fall. Not this time. French society will move, as always, after some intellectualist debates on television, back into its stasis—until something else of this sort happens again and people are back on the streets.   There cannot be peace without justice or justice without honesty. A society that refuses an open debate on the fundamental challenges it faces, and that keeps pretending there is nothing to see here—no integration problem, no migration problem, no problem of coexistence with culturally heterogeneous populations, no class issues—will get neither reconciliation nor redemption.   Rest in peace, Nahel.     Article image: Aftermath of rioting in Quartier de la Roseraie, Angers, 1 July 2023. Pom', licence CC BY-SA 2.0