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French Protests and Global Anti-Racism

Large crowds at a French pretest carry a banner that reads "Justice for Nahel" in French.
People attend a march in tribute to Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer during a traffic stop, in Nanterre, Paris, on June 29, 2023. The slogan reads “Justice for Nahel.” Sarah Meyssonnier—Reuters

Two days before the US Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education admissions, police shot and killed a seventeen-year-old boy in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. The past three nights have brought massive protests to French cities to demand “justice for Nahel” and to call our attention yet again to the violence of global racism.

These protests echo and amplify the work by French anti-racist organizers over the past decades. Assa Traoré has been campaigning tirelessly for truth and justice in the wake of her own brother’s death in police custody in 2016. Black Lives Matter protests in France in 2020 quickly connected Adama Traoré’s death to George Floyd’s. The murders of both Adama, who was of Malian descent, and Nahel, of Algerian and Moroccan descent, remind us that the French state remains bound by its history of imperial racism and the institutions built to uphold white supremacy within that empire.

This current wave of protests draws not only on Traoré’s legacy, but also on the memories of the two teenaged boys who died after their motorcycle crashed into a police car in Villiers-le-Bel in 2007, and the two high-schoolers who died while hiding from police in Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005. Both incidents occasioned nation-wide protests.

Nahel’s death at the hands of French police also harkens back to the Paris massacre of October 17, 1961, during which Paris police used violence to repress a peaceful march by Algerian migrants resisting harsh measures enacted during Algeria’s war for independence. Indeed, there is a great deal of France’s current police structure that builds directly on its colonial past (something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately).

In the words of Kaoutar Harchi, a French writer and sociologist,

Before Nahel was killed, he was kill-able… Because weighing on him was the French history of disparaging masculine Arab existences. Weighing on him was racism. He was exposed to it. He ran the risk of being its victim. Racial domination rests entirely on the existence of this risk.

French officials, among them Macron, are lamenting the “inexplicable and inexcusable” tragedy of Nahel’s death. French folks and scholars of color, however, have long rejected the façade of the “colorblind” French republic and are pushing back on the idea that this sort of violence is foreign or exceptional. Mame Fatou Niang, for example, retorted:

No, this is not inexplicable. We have been warning, writing, establishing committees for truth and justice, denouncing racial profiling, the colonial continuum, and the racial contract that is crushing the daily existence, the lives, and the souls of our brothers. It is said and resaid.

Nanterre itself carries a history of popular protest we would do well to heed. Students at Nanterre’s university campus kicked off the the events of May-June 1968 in Paris. Their radicalism was fueled in part by their proximity to immigrant neighborhoods and migrants of all backgrounds played a role in the general strikes and other mass movements of that spring.

Jean Beaman makes a convincing case for both calling attention to the ways that racist state structures build upon and learn from each other and to the vitality of global anti-racist networks. As much energy as we need to devote to resisting white supremacist agendas in the US, we should also pay attention to how these struggles are playing out elsewhere.

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