Interview. ‘How can one explain to the young people in the suburbs, who are under daily pressure from the police, that they should remain calm, respond with petitions and appeals, or turn to the parties in Parliament to make their voices heard?’

Alain Bertho: I fear a dramatic escalation in France’s arsenal of repression

From his vantage point in Saint-Denis, in the Parisian suburbs, where he was born, raised and still lives today, Alain Bertho is one of the French intellectuals who have dealt most thoroughly with the subject of the banlieues and the political and cultural significance of the riots taking place there.

As professor emeritus of anthropology at the Paris 8 University Vincennes-Saint-Denis, Bertho has devoted dozens of books to this analysis, including The Age of Violence (2018), Les Enfants du Chaos (2016), Le Temps des Émeutes (2009).

Tragedy, grief, anger — what does Tuesday’s point-blank shooting of 17-year-old Nahel by a policeman in Nanterre, now setting the entire country ablaze, tell us about France today?

I think it tells us, first of all, about the outcomes of the two political directions set in motion by the government and Macron. On one hand, a further escalation in police violence and repression, not only against the inhabitants of the banlieues, but also against social movements, such as those who have been demonstrating in the streets of the country against the pension reform being pushed by the president.

On the other hand is the enactment of legislation that makes all this possible and pushes in the direction of the “State of Exception” by resorting to the use of laws intended to be used against terrorism in ordinary settings, with outcomes that are more and more serious. Just to give an example, the first consequence of the new rules on police officers being able to use firearms, adopted at the end of the last decade, was the doubling of related deaths compared to previous years: in 2020 alone there were 40, 52 in 2021, 39 in 2022 and 13 this year so far. We’re talking about people killed “in cold blood” as a result of the intervention of police officers.

At this point, many are recalling the great uprising that broke out in the suburbs in 2005 after the deaths of two teenagers, Zyed and Bouna, who were electrocuted in a fuse box while trying to escape police.

I believe that this time, what the executive branch is “teaching” people is leading us towards catastrophe. In 2005, only one police station was attacked; today there are already 25 in just a few days. Because even in the face of millions of French people who took to the streets – I am referring here to the great mobilizations in defense of pensions – the government decided to plow ahead undeterred, using repression and a bit of parliamentary bricolage to get what it wanted. The sense is that whatever happens and whatever the French have to say, the government says “I decide, regardless!”

In the face of such a scenario, how can one explain to the young people in the suburbs, who are under daily pressure from the police, that they should remain calm, respond with petitions and appeals, or turn to the parties in Parliament to make their voices heard?

I have to be honest, I’m very concerned. I fear new dramatic episodes and that the government’s response will be to increase the arsenal of repression even more. And, at the same time, people are beginning to accuse those in left-wing parties of being “arsonists” because they agree with the reasons behind the protests that are taking place.

In the meantime, however, it has become obvious that the kind of repression once applied in the banlieues is now extended to the whole of society.

Absolutely. Again, we can give concrete examples: the use of LBDs (“Defense Ball Launchers”), the so-called Flash-Balls that shoot semi-rigid rubber balls with great force and speed, began in 1995 in the suburbs; later they also began to be used against protests, starting with those of the Yellow Vests, causing dozens of very serious injuries each year, with people often losing their sight as a result of the injuries received. And the BAC, the police anti-crime brigades, which are now regularly sent in against protesters, also began in the banlieues. As a result, particularly in the wake of the Yellow Vests demonstrations, a new sensitivity regarding police brutality has emerged. There was a realization that this violence was being used not only against “hoodlums,” but against anyone who resisted. Furthermore, the issue of the situation in the banlieues and what is happening there no longer concerns only those who live in these areas – and this has been made clear over the past few days by the large numbers who took part in the “white march” on Thursday in Nanterre, attended by several thousand people who came from all over Paris, including members of some left-wing parties.

And still, in 2017 Macron tried to win the votes of the suburbs; now some are comparing him to Sarkozy, who said and did terrible things against those young people.

One might say that the student has surpassed his teacher. At the time of his first run for the Elysée, it was thought that Macron’s liberalism could represent a curb on the mounting racism in the country. Afterwards, he took it upon himself to disprove these expectations, enacting neoliberal policy that saw rights as its main foe, starting with social rights. Moreover, Macron explicitly focused on the idea of completely destroying the country’s political framework, turning Marine Le Pen and the National Rally into his sparring partner and thus helping to make that political force central in the public space. Then, his government worked to “manufacture an enemy,” in particular by criminalizing French Islam, under the pretext of terrorism; as it happens, Islam is present most of all in the banlieues.

The problem for Macron, however, is that those “poor white people” to whom he tried to appeal by directing their fears against Muslims ended up being the same ones who went into the streets en masse to demonstrate against his pension reform. So it can be said that, in the end, he failed at his own game.

Then, there is also “another banlieue,” the one that votes for Le Pen: could the far-right leader take advantage of this situation?

Marine Le Pen currently enjoys a position of strength, because the leftist parties have not been able to capitalize on the impulses that have come up in society in opposition to pension reform, as the unions have managed to do. These parties are too busy deciding who their candidate will be in the next presidential election. Le Pen opposed the reform, and, partly for the reasons mentioned, appears today to be Macron’s most viable opponent.

Furthermore, these days she has taken up the mantle of a champion of public order, and is speaking to those who perhaps live in the same banlieues and fear that their cars will be burned. This combination of elements means that once again, she is the one being perceived as the president’s most resolute and strongest opponent.

And, since many are now looking at politics in such terms alone, and voting accordingly, there is a risk that those who only want to oust Macron from the Elysee and who are asking themselves, “Who, among the possible candidates, could really be able to beat him?” will give their support to her.

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