In our series of letters from African journalists, France-based Maher Mezahi writes about how racism and Islamophobia underlie the anger seen on the country’s streets over the past week.
The riots that spread across the country after the killing of Nahl M, a 17-year-old boy of Algerian origin by the police, have shook French society to its core. The disturbances were described as unprecedented in scale and severity.
In Marseille, the city I’ve called home for the past year, an absurd routine has settled in.
Afternoons were for rushing to finish errands before shops and public transportation closed prematurely before the impending chaos.
The evenings featured a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game between police and rioters, to the pulsating soundtrack of car and helicopter sirens and fireworks.
The morning was devoted to French talk shows and the one-sided analysis that was often fired.
The same department of police union spokespeople, legal analysts, and politicians have tried again and again to explain who, what, and—most notably—why the riots occurred.
While there was near unanimous condemnation of the police killing of Nahal, after the riots many were quick to ask the same old question of emigrating to France.
There was a constant present: “How did the third and fourth generation of French citizens with immigrant backgrounds fail to integrate into French society?”
And my personal favorite: “Don’t rioters understand that they’re destroying their property?”
That such questions have not been answered decades after they were first raised makes me wonder if those who ask them are genuinely looking for answers.
In his famous inaugural address at Kenyon College in the United States in 2005, the late American novelist David Foster Wallace gave the tale of two young fish swimming in front of an older fish, to which he said, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
The two continue on their way and then one asks the other, “What the hell is that water?”
Wallace noted, “The point of The Fish Story is that the most obvious and important facts are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
As a young Algerian Muslim growing up in Canada, my observation of daily life in France over the past few months is that the water reeks of veiled and vulgar racism and Islamophobia.
In the weeks leading up to the shooting, there were numerous examples of major media outlets and political elites making highly provocative statements about Muslims and Algerians in France.
At the beginning of June, former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave a wide-ranging interview calling for immigration reform. He said that some French people do not consider second or third generation immigrants to be French for the purposes of “integration, education and a civic mindset” – and that these views should be heard.
Philip went on to say that another problem that many French suffer from with immigration is Islam.
“It’s a central topic, a disturbing topic, and a painful topic,” he said.
Finally, he called for the cancellation of a bilateral treaty that would make it easier for Algerians to immigrate to France.
Later in June, France’s most-watched news channel, BFM TV, filmed the entrance of a prep school in Lyon so they could count the number of students who entered wearing the “abaya,” a loose-fitting robe worn by many Muslim women.
The purpose of the report was to tell the French public that public display of religion was infiltrating schools, and was contrary to the dogma of religion secularism The French concept of strict secularism in the public sphere.
The girls defiantly walked up to the doorway in their gowns and removed their veils, as required by French law, forcing the establishment to admit that she was actively undressing them.
The scenes remind us of Frantz Fanon’s essay on Algeria Unveiled, in which he analyzes the colonial apparatus’ obsessive view of Algerian women who cover their bodies.
The controversy over the cloak was followed by a story that a handful of Muslim children in Nice, ages 9 to 11, dared to pray in their schoolyard.
The mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, the head of a right-wing political party, Eric Ciotti, and the Minister of Education, Pape Ndiaye, have all publicly criticized the children.
A few days later, and a few weeks before the 2023 Women’s World Cup, a French court upheld the ban on Muslim female soccer players wearing the hijab.
While the officer who killed Nael was being held, right-wing figures set up a crowdfunding campaign on his behalf, which received €1.6m (£1.4m, $1.7m) in donations before it was shut down.
Some left-leaning politicians condemned the campaign, but others on the right used it to express support for the police and it became a very divisive issue.
All of this feeds into the feeling of not being accepted by the state and society for many Muslims and North Africans living in France, and explains why so many people have reacted with such anger to Nael’s murder.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “Riot is the language of the unheard of.”
Last week, perhaps for the first time in their lives, restless French youth made their voices heard.
More letters from Africa:
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