After the Riots, the Police Terrorize Marseille

After the Riots, the Police Terrorize Marseille

After the Riots, the Police Terrorize Marseille

Two days after police killed Nahel Merzouk, the poorest big city in France exploded with anger. By Sunday, a crackdown had smothered the protests—and made residents even more fearful.


Marseille, France—Many of the faces in the crowd were young and brown. It was June 29 in Marseille. Two days prior in Nanterre, a cop fatally shot Nahel Merzouk, 17, in the head during a routine traffic stop. The police had claimed self-defense, but a video released by a witness showed an officer pointing and firing a gun directly into the youth’s car.

That first night, there were arrests and fires in cities around Nanterre, but the anger quickly spread across France. Police responded by sending helicopters, armored vehicles, tactical units, and the French equivalent of SWAT teams. Over six days, police arrested between 3,600 and 4,000 people. About a third of them were minors—some as young as 11. Many of the detained protesters were men and boys of color like Nahel, who was of Algerian and Moroccan descent. While the government promises “swift, tough, and systematic” sanctions for those arrested, the confrontations have left French cities reeling. Marseille, in particular, has become a flashpoint in the media coverage of riots and looting.

The scale and swiftness of police repression that descended upon French cities has been shocking. French media and politicians across the spectrum have turned police officers and a mayor and his family who escaped “attempted assassination”—an event that may not be connected to the riots—into the main victims of the unrest. But several people have died, including a 27-year-old in Marseille whose death is seen as “probably” due to the impact of a “Flash-Ball type projectile” (a rubber or foam pellet), a 50-year-old shot by a stray bullet in French Guyana, and a young man who fell from the roof of a grocery store during a looting near Rouen.

As stores reopen and elected officials collect funds to repair public buildings, the police repression is continuing, and hundreds of those arrested, many of them minors, face harsh sentencing. By July 4, 380 people had already been incarcerated. In Marseille, the poorest big city in France, residents speak not of returned calm but rather of state terror, as they try to comprehend the events of the past week.

Last Thursday, there hadn’t been mass unrest yet in Marseille. After a call went out on social media, hundreds of people assembled at 8 pm in front of a police station. The evening began with speeches, including one by the father of Souheil, a boy killed in Marseille two years ago in circumstances similar to Nahel’s. But the crowd grew increasingly restless. A couple of fireworks went off. When an elected speaker tried to speak, the crowd interrupted and booed, then people began marching toward the main street and chanting: “Justice for Nahel!” and “No justice, no peace!” Many in the crowd were young North African men, some of them boys, who likely saw their possible fates reflected in Nahel’s.

The crowd pushed through toward the main street, a few lighting trash cans on the way. They spilled out onto the Old Port. That’s when the police started launching tear gas, which hit protesters as well as mothers, babies in strollers, and street vendors selling tea in the touristic city center. Briefly trapped, the protesters dispersed, but the confrontations continued late into the night. A 24-year-old French woman of Moroccan origin told me that on her way home she saw a few kids throwing fireworks at the cops, who responded by launching tear gas at them. (The woman asked for anonymity, fearing police retaliation, as some of her family members are undocumented.) The next day, when the police encountered protesters with fireworks, they returned fire with plastic bullets and bean-bag projectiles.

Many people told me they were shocked by how young those participating in the riots were and by the violence of the police. Shooting fireworks is a routine occurrence at soccer matches. As residents continued to loot and light street fires, the police presence intensified, as did fear of the cops. The 24-year-old woman told me that a friend, a young man of North African descent, called her one night to ask if he could stay with her family, an hour away on foot, because people had broken into a jewelry store near his apartment, and he was afraid of being arrested for the crime. On her way home another night, she ran into a boy with a bloody ear, who told her that members of the CRS, the “anti-riot” unit, had hit him and that he couldn’t figure out how to get home with all the police swarming the streets.

By Saturday, 45,000 police officers were deployed across France, or about four times as many as there were at the height of the pension reform movement that shook the country for the first five months of the year. The minister of the interior sent helicopters, tactical units, and armored vehicles. It’s only half the number of police—80,000—deployed in 2019 during the Yellow Vest movement, but an alarming figure for the speed with which the reinforcements came and the number of people they proceeded to arrest.

At the same time, videos circulated of people—many of them young men of color from poor neighborhoods—ramming trucks into grocery stores and setting fires to bus depots. The clips of the vandalism circulated mostly on Snapchat and TikTok, aggregated on anonymous accounts on Telegram, leading President Emmanuel Macron to blame these apps (along with video games) for facilitating the “mimicry of violence” and the organization of “violent gatherings.” On Friday, a friend texted to warn me that he’d seen someone walking around with what looked like a hunting rifle—some people had gotten into a weapons shop in central Noailles. (They didn’t take any gunpowder, and one person was subsequently arrested.)

In my neighborhood near the St. Charles train station, I saw a group of around 20 young men set fire to a bin on the road. They quickly dispersed when a firetruck arrived and heavily armed police followed. A truck manned by RAID—the tactical anti-terrorism unit—appeared but didn’t pursue them. It drove at a sinister crawl, under the awed gaze of onlookers and their phone cameras. That night, police arrested 95 people, many of them under the age of 18. Lawyers who were present told me that from 11 pm that Friday to 11 am the next day, police did not allow lawyers on duty (who are there to assure the presence of a lawyer during arrests) to enter the jails, citing extraordinary circumstances.

On June 28, Macron had been remarkably frank in condemning Nahel’s death. “Nothing, nothing justifies the death of a young man,” he said. “We have a teenager who was killed. It’s inexplicable, inexcusable.” (His declaration outraged Alliance, one of the largest police unions.)

But quickly, the word “riot” became more common than the name “Nahel” in the public discourse. Leftist politicians who had angrily refused to “call for calm” that first day specified two days later that the rioters should refrain from going after schools and libraries after other politicians and the media accused them of encouraging violence.

Meanwhile, the police offensive ramped up, particularly in Marseille. On July 1, two police unions released an alarming statement:

In the face of these savage hordes, asking for calm is no longer enough, it must be imposed! Restoring the republican order and putting the apprehended beyond the capacity to harm should be the only political signals to give. In the face of such exactions, the police family must stand together. Our colleagues, like the majority of citizens, can no longer bear the tyranny of these violent minorities. The time is not for union action, but for combat against these vermin.

It concluded with a threat: “Today, the Police are in battle because we are at war. Tomorrow we will be in resistance and the Government will have to realize this.”

July 1 was the night Mohamed, 27, was killed in Marseille by the impact of a rubber bullet, according to a preliminary investigation. That night was particularly brutal: Videos showed RAID officers shooting bean-bag rounds at protesters in the city center, apparently on sight. Another video showed a group of police beating a person unconscious. Sixty-five people were arrested. Meanwhile, helicopters kept circling overhead.

Marseille isn’t just the poorest big city in metropolitan France; it’s also one of the most unequal—a neighborhood with a poverty rate of around 50 percent sits just three miles away from the richest neighborhood in the country outside the Paris area. It’s home to many immigrant and immigrant-descended communities. For all that, Marseille remained quiet in 2005, when riots erupted for three weeks around the rest of the country after two 17-year-olds died trying to escape from the police. (A local man thought he saw young people enter a construction site and called the police; the two friends fled and hid in an electrical substation, where they were electrocuted.) So for Marseille to erupt the way it did last week was unexpected.

I spoke with a Comoran immigrant and baker, who moved to Marseilles as a teenager in 1996 and asked to remain anonymous for fear of police reprisal because of his role in the protests. He said that the city feels different. He told me Marseille is a “complicated city” with a lot of segregation and divisions that he blames as well on local politicians. But he was unequivocal when he talked about the police: “In Marseille, if you’re Black or Arab, you’re tracked by the police,” he said. “Anyone will tell you that the French police are racist.”

Rising inflation has also been a major problem that particularly affects poor immigrant neighborhoods. One person who stole from an Aldi grocery store in Marseille told a national TV reporter: “You want to kill kids? We’ll loot. It’s just like that. It’s revenge.” On air with his face blurred, he described his winnings: paper towels, ice cream, and Kellogg’s cereal. “Kellogg’s is expensive.”

TikTok users poked fun at the last segment of that interview, but food prices keep increasing. One man arrested in front of a supermarket admitted to stealing groceries. He said during his trial, “I took peaches and apricots, because I haven’t eaten fruit in a year.”

As noted in The New Inquiry, Nahel was born in 2006, the year Nicholas Sarkozy began his presidential campaign vowing to limit immigration and “flush out the vermin.” Today, hundreds of men like him face fines and months of imprisonment, sometimes for nothing more than stealing a can of Red Bull.

The 24-year-old woman told me that the media’s claims that France has “returned to calm” are not accurate, especially amid developing news about a man dying after he was shot by police in Marseille. The state’s response—first with the police and now in the courts—has not extinguished young people’s anger; it has only made people afraid. “There’s a terror that’s been established with the new police presence,” she said. “It’s not calm. It’s just repressed to death.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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