France orders the rioters to disperse

Paris riots

Could you please just go home?

A group of young people were pushing past her and being pursued by riot police, when a middle-aged French woman asked a weary-sounding question to them.

On Sunday morning, it was well after one in the morning on the Champs Elysée, a popular destination for tourists looking to shop. Tear gas was thick in the air. Five nights have passed since the killing of Nahel, a French Algerian teen, by a policeman on a housing estate in Paris, sparking the street riots that have gripped France.

When I realized how many French people would love to ask the same question as the irate woman, my colleagues and I were filming the commotion all around.

Emmanuel Macron is fervently hoping that the protesters will eventually give up and leave, along with any accompanying vandals. for a lot of reasons.

Unrest in France during his second term as president has been frequent, with protests over pension reform and now Nahel's death. His popularity ratings aren't exactly rising as a result.

Abdul attributes the unrest to President Macron.

Teacher Abdul, who resides on Nahel's estate, told me that Mr. Macron is solely to blame. His economic changes are a complete failure. He informed me that both France and its educational system were in disarray.

Abdul was certain that angry, unemployed young men from underprivileged areas were at least partially to blame for the street violence. He claimed that they are pushing these teenagers from behind the scenes.

Every morning, Abdul's neighbors take their smartphones outside to take pictures of the burning wreckage left over from the most recent riot. They also expressed to us their desire for the kids to stop. Student Celia expressed concern that the violence might result in retaliation against the entire community.

In the working-class neighborhood of Aulney, which is close to Paris, mothers took to the streets on Sunday night to demand an end to the violence. Last week, President Macron urged the parents of the rioters to keep their children at home and away from social media, which he claimed allowed "inflammatory material" to spread.

The crisis is also weakening Macron politically, under fire from the political left and right over what best to do next.  The left accuses him of neglecting the poor and the marginalised.  The right demands he crack down harder on the violence, imposing a nationwide state of emergency.

But the optics would be tricky for the French president.  He'd worry a crackdown could ignite an even greater rage on the streets.  And further tarnish France's international standing.

Mr Macron was forced by this crisis to leave last week's summit of EU leaders where they discussed Europe's biggest emergency: Russia's invasion of Ukraine.  And this weekend, the president had to cancel a much discussed state visit to important EU ally Germany - the first by a French president in 23 years.    .

While in the world of sport, questions are being asked as to whether France can be trusted to safely host international events like the world's biggest cycling championship, the Tour de France.  It concludes in three weeks on the Champs Elysée - a favourite spot for rioters, as we learned at the start of this article.  The Rugby World Cup is due to begin in France in September.

As for the family of the dead teenager, they told me they ache for the rioters to go home.  They've never called for acts of hate or theft or destruction in his name, they insist.  In fact they worry the violence could distract from what they do want: justice.  For them that means the police officer who killed Nahel, sentenced and imprisoned.

But talk to the protesters themselves and they don't want to go home.  A number say they feel unsafe at home because of regular confrontations with police.  The UN has accused France's security forces of systemic racism.

Activists like Assa Traore - whose brother died seven years ago following his arrest, told us being a young black or Arab man on a housing estate in France means being regularly exposed to police brutality and racial profiling.  Until France recognises the problem is endemic, she says, there will be a lot more Nahels.

But the secretary general of one of France's powerful police unions, Unité SGP, flatly denies the allegations of systemic racism.

Jean-Christophe Couvy says France is "not the US.  We don't have ghettos", he told me.  "Our forces represent France's multicultural society with officers from all backgrounds.  You'll find maybe 1 percent of racists - like in the rest of society - but no more. ".

Mr Couvy didn't want to discuss the specifics of Nahel's case as it's an open investigation.

So I asked him how he would go about improving police relations with the estates.

Jean-Christophe Couvy
Jean-Christophe Couvy denies there is systemic racism in the police force.

"The best way forward is to return to a system of community policing in France, where we know each other by our first names. " .

Right now in France, he told me, policing has become a box-ticking exercise of showing how many people each officer detains for questioning - to demonstrate he or she is working hard.

"The problem with that is it becomes like two opposing gangs on the streets: police vs the inhabitants of the estates. ".

Back in January, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne launched a new action plan against racism but it's been criticised for its silence on racial profiling by French police.  Last summer, the Council of Europe's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance released its sixth report on France, highlighting "little progress" on curtailing the use of ethnic profiling by law enforcement officers.   .

Not all the rioters on France's streets were triggered by Nahel's death, but those who are say loud protests are the only way people like them get their voices heard in France.

That's why, they say, they can't and shouldn't go home.

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