There is a term which gained a long history among academics due to long history of interventions in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America: the so-called Failed State. One example of such was Afganistan, with its last president Ashraf Ghani, who, apart from reaching mastery in corruption and embezzling funds, was also, somewhere on the margins, a specialist of failed state theory and state-building with a Western university diploma. However, what’s more concerning, this notion is now becoming more and more popular among anti-immigrant right in Europe. Let us take a journey of philosophical and historic vivisection, my own personal autopsy to answer a question: is France a failed state?
“After a 17-year-old adolescent was killed by a police officer during a traffic check, France was shaken by massive protests and rioting, particularly in the Paris neighborhood of Nanterre. Nahel M, an Algerian national, was shot in the chest at point-blank range on Tuesday”
– we we were reading in the newspapers around the globe for weeks.
Nahel M. worked as a takeaway driver. He also a record of sport activity in the Pirates of Nanterre – a local rugby club – for the past three years. He took part in an integration programme for struggling teenegers. He was an only child, raised by his mother Mounia. After his death, his mother claimed that he was killed because he had an “Arab face”. Literally she said: “The officer saw an Arab face, a little kid, and wanted to take his life”.
Nahel was enrolled at a college in Suresnes and could have become an electriction, had he gotten the chance to finish school. However, his performance, or, more precisely, attendance record in school, was poor. Nahel had also been in trouble before and was known to police. However, his family lawyers said that he had no criminal record, reported BBC.
All these is not really abnormal for France. The fact that the man found his death at the hands of a policeman – neither. Yes, the police kills people in France. The police blind them using rubber bullets, or injure them by using military grade grenades against demonstrators. Around 15 people were killed during Yellow Vest protests.
Protests in France, end March. During this demonstration, too, police hurled stun grenades at the crowd.
The only thing that made the recent escalation possible was the fact that the death of Nahel was recorded and then uploaded online.
Immigrant student paradox
To be clear – I have just moved out of France. A couple of weeks ago I ended my studies there and rather than looking for a job in France, I moved back to Poland. But while still a student, I lived in Roubaix/Lille, a place called French Detroit or Chiraq. This last name was given to Chicago by artists and, I guess, war veterans who noticed a widespread usage of firearms and violence. Just like in Iraq, another failed state. The extreme right politician Eric Zemmour did not hesitate to call this former industrial city “Afghanistan two hours from Paris”.
Living in Roubaix was… tough, saying the least. Starting from landlords, who want to scrap every single euro from people who are not originally from France, using law, language and experience and power over for example heating, to the lack of basic stuff in the zone. I mean everything basic, both material and immaterial. From simple jobs, to a sense of elementary security in the streets at night.
I was an immigrant from Europe, who didn’t speak French properly – properly is the very strict notion in France – and a student. I could experience what does it mean in practice.
No shock, just normality
Was it a shock for me that angry people started to rob police stations, administration buildings, town halls and destroy CCTV cameras after the shooting of Nahel? No. If you have lived a little bit longer in the so-called banlieu, French term for ghetto, during the last months, then it was something that was possible to foresee.
While the organized working class had its moments during the mobilization against the pension reform, the middle class participated in that or took to the streets during the yellow vests protest. In all of that banlieues haven’t mobilized to this extent. Their problems, such as low income, complete withdrawal of the state and systematic repression and discrimination on the racial background, haven’t been addressed by any of these movements.
And we are talking about circa 8-10% of the French population which lives in these forgotten districts. I could not believe my French friends that there was even a state website with the list of the banlieues, called there Zones urbaines sensibles. It contains more than 750 localisations.
From my experience, life in one of them has strict rules. After sunset, you don’t go out alone, especially if you are a woman. Every female friend of mine, living in Roubaix, but also other districts around LIlle, has had in their boll pepper gas and a little gas trumpet. Also, wouldn’t let someone go home alone.
Pickpocketing was a daily experience – in the grocery, metro, on the streets or in a caffe. Casual stuff. After some time, one would know every trick used by thieves. What’s more, you couldn’t count on the police, especially if you are not French. They just do not give a damn about “small crime”. One of my friends even showed them her phone on the “find my phone app” after it was stolen. I have to tell you, they couldn’t care less.
If you don’t speak French, you don’t exist. Or worse. One of my friends, after being mugged, robbed and beaten in the city center of Lille, was later brutally detained by the police, who thought he had been involved in a fight. No one at the station spoke English. He spent 24 hours half-naked in the police station’s cellar. After the university called the police station to explain the situation, they were told to fuck off.
For every overwhelming social problem, the French state has one solution: violence and repression. While Macron said that the main problems are games and social media, Zemmour and Le Pen are urging for anti-immigrant actions. One might ask why Macron said such bullshit? I think this was the one answer that wouldn’t make angry anyone, just would make people shocked and ask what the f***?
What’s more, the president said that next time one shall think about banning social media in order to prevent sharing information about riots and incidents, which then might snowball into demonstrations. Let me just remind you that Macron loves posing as the democracy defender and the incarnation of Republican values. Banning media is indeed one of those.
Last time after terrorist attacks Macron expelled around 100 imams, who were under some kind of surveillance linked to radical islamisation. Pushbacks and repression without any systemic approach. Now Eric Zemmour stood up in the parliament and said that he would literally kick out up to 1 million people from France. That is the estimated number of illegal immigrants. He accompanied his speeches by giving chocolate and flowers to policemen, thanking them for crushing the riots.
All of this with police forces being more and more open with their bias. Two of the country’s biggest police unions, Alliance Police Nationale (APN) and UNSA POlice have declared they are ready to revolt unless the government provides concrete legal protection for police officers.
As the statement says: “Today the police are in combat because we are at war. Tomorrow we will enter resistance and the government should be aware of this.” And what’s more: “Faced with these savage hordes, it’s no longer enough to call for calm, it must be imposed.”
More of the same
This whole context really gives little hope. Macron will increase the budget of the police and will do the same as all presidents before. He will introduce a rebuild package for the cities and towns hit by the riots, without even touching the social issues that haunt the banlieues.
The policy of more and more militarisation of the police has been undergoing since Sarkozy was the Minister of Inferior Affairs in 2005. Then, the similar riots started after the death of two boys of immigrant descent after a brutal police chaise. France has started to turn into a police state.
This kind of riots, as Polish-British philosopher Zygmunt Bauman said, is the voice of the unrepresented, proletarianised to the extreme level, groups of people alienated from the mainstream discourse. They have no political representation, as the French left is divided over the approach towards the riots. Anyway, how much can a left do in a state which becomes a police state? They will somehow from time to time show their disfranchisement with the state that has left them alone.
This cycle of violence and repression combined with alienation of the most impoverished groups of the French society, creates zones of failed statehood. In these Zones urbaines sensibles, the power belongs to the most violent groups, looking for a job is looking for one on the drug market or by joining some squads of violent mobbers, permanently watched and chased by military-grade police forces. And they are just looking to beat you up and lock you in the cellar of some cold police station.
Welcome to Banlieues, welcome to the failed state of France.