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OPINION: €1.6 million fund for accused police officer reveals deep divides in France

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: €1.6 million fund for accused police officer reveals deep divides in France
The mairie at L'Hay-les-roses was among many that was attacked by rioters. Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP

The €1.6 million raised for the family of a police officer who shot a teenage boy and then lied about it reveals the deep divisions within France - writes John Lichfield - from the leftists who refuse to accept that the rioters are anything other than 'angels' to the right-wingers who will excuse any behaviour from the police.


Let me tell a tale of two countries, both called France.

The first country believes that the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old boy by a traffic cop must have been justified because the victim was called Nahel and the policeman was called Florian.

That country - “Pro-Police, right or wrong” - has given €1.6 million to an online fund for the family of the police officer who killed a teenager for a traffic offence and then lied about it.

Listen to John and the team from The Local discuss the riots on the latest episode of the Talking France podcast? Download here or listen on the link below


Another country, also called France, believes that the dead boy was an “angel” and that the five nights of brainless destruction and self-harm by a small and very young minority of people in the multi-racial suburbs were understandable and even justified.

That country – “Pro-Justice for Nahel” – refuses to acknowledge that there is a profound problem of crime and violence in the banlieues and that the principal victims are the hard-working majority of residents. They put the entire blame on police violence and racism.


They, too, ignore the fact that the great majority of banlieue residents – including the majority of teenage boys – did NOT burn their neighbours’ cars or vandalise their siblings’ schools in the last week.

Other countries also called “France” are available – for now.

It is possible to believe two things simultaneously (as I do). The shooting of a 17-year-old boy for driving in a bus-lane was a crime. The riots were an orgy of brainless self-harm, motivated by competitive social-media posing more than sincere anger about Nahel’s death.

The great political question posed by the last week’s events is how long my hang-wringing middle-ground can survive – both inside and outside the banlieues. What has been striking, and depressing, apart from the violence itself has been the polarisation of political and media reaction.

For the Far Right and most of the traditional Right, the riots are the inevitable result of the "mass migration" which has implanted hostile "foreign enclaves" on the edge of almost every French town and city.

Even in the usually moderate and intelligent Le Figaro, there has been commentary after commentary suggesting that France has incubated in its suburbs an “anti-France” which despises French Republican law and values. Few of those articles even bother to address the fact that the killing of Nahel was the 17th killing in 18 months of a motorist for failing to obey a police order to stop.

Others casually minimise the killing of a 17-year-old boy (with a mildly turbulent history but no criminal record).

“If this young man is dead it is first and foremost because he refused to submit to a police check,” said François-Xavier Bellamy, vice-president of the supposedly moderate Les Républicains.

Marion Maréchal Le Pen, estranged niece of Marine Le Pen, declared (without any evidence) that the policeman shot Nahel in the chest because his own life was in danger.

The Far Right and traditional right commentaries ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of the young rioters were not “foreign” but French. They pass over the fact that the great majority of the young people in the allegedly “foreign” enclaves shunned the riots. As one teacher pointed out, for every 200 rioting kids, there were 2,000 who stayed at home.


The great symbol of this angry, intolerant France has been the cagnotte (online fund) launched by Jean Messiha, an Egyptian-born converted Catholic who was ejected from Le Pen’s party for being too virulently anti-Muslim.

His appeal asks for “support for the family of the Nanterre police officer, Florian M, who did his job and is today paying a heavy price”. 

By implication, therefore, it must be the “job” of French police to shoot boys of North African origin.

The fund, which initially aimed to reach €50,000, passed €1.6 million before it closed. A similar fund for Nahel’s mother has raised €300,000.

Some of the reaction on the Left has been equally tribal.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the hard Left La France Insoumise (LFI), refused to condemn the rioting. The destruction of libraries, media-centres, schools, trams and buses - precious  to residents of the banlieues - was, he implied, justified. Other left-wing politicians spoke of Nahel’s death as a “summary execution”, as if killing 17-year-old boys for minor traffic offences was official policy.


To their credit, other leaders of the Left angrily dismissed these inflammatory simplifications and condemned the rioting and opportunistic looting from the beginning. All credit to François Ruffin of the LFI and Fabien Roussel, leader of the Parti Communiste.

By comparison, few voices on the moderate, “republican” Right have dared to suggest that French police attitudes may be part of the problem; or that the alienated fringe of young people in the banlieue must be persuaded that they are as much French as the young people of the cities or the countryside.

President Emmanuel Macron is expected to make a statement on TV in the next few days. He will doubtless try to find a middle way between the extremes. Good luck with that.

The danger France now faces is of a self-fulfilling spiral of prejudice and rejection.

The riots have reinforced, and unleashed, the racist attitudes of those who refuse to accept that a part of the French population is French. That will deepen the belief of a violent, nihilistic fringe of youths that burning and looting is legitimate, not a self-pleasing, self-defeating dead end.


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Kristine 2023/07/06 03:26
By all means protest but that should be all it is, a protest, not riots. The protests which initially are to highlight the wrongdoing, receive zilch sympathy once the rioting starts. The protests become a playground for thugs, making the situation worse.
Ganesh Natrajan 2023/07/04 18:10
Shooting down a boy for not stopping for a police check is condemnable, but I have zero sympathy for the rioters. There is too much tolerance in France for such vandalizing behavior. If Melechon celebrates these rioters, maybe he should invite them to vandalise his house? And please spare me this garbage about France being 'intolerant to immigrants'. I'm a colored immigrant myself, and have never faced any intolerance here. It's the same with millions of others like me.

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