Will the latest French unrest lead to civil war?

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — The scenery during a half-hour stroll through the French suburbs last Thursday afternoon included two cars that had been torched right into the pavement and a completely gutted city hall. Yawn. Just another day in the so-called City of Enlightenment in the wake of yet another uprising.

While tourists might have found the scene alarming, someone who has lived in France for the past 15 years mostly just ends up being reminded of a typical New Year’s morning or the aftermath of a World Cup qualifying match win by any North African nation. This time, the unrest was sparked by the alleged point-blank police shooting of a reckless 17-year-old driver of Moroccan and Algerian origin, accused of attempting to flee the authorities in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre — which just happens to be the same project-ridden area to which my smartphone was geolocated after it was snatched right out of my hand by a couple of young hoodlums over a decade ago.

The kid in question, Nahel, was reportedly already known to police for similar behavior on multiple occasions, each of which, theoretically, should have resulted in a year in jail and a fine of 7,500 euros (about $8,000 USD). The system clearly failed in this case, allegedly resulting in a police officer taking the law into his own hands, Dirty Harry-style, as he now sits in detention facing charges of voluntary homicide.

Insecurity has plagued France for at least a couple of decades, and no one in charge has been able to get a handle on it. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007 on the promise of restoring order. As interior minister in 2005, he vowed to clean out the projects with a Kärcher — a brand of pressure-washer. But for all the tough words, there’s been little action.

Lax French law and justice is a problem. It’s a running joke here that there are kids dealing drugs in the projects while wearing ankle bracelets. I know educators who have been told by teenagers who earn their living through criminal pursuits that they don’t need school or an education because they can already buy and sell their entire school’s teaching staff. Cops now just shrug as kids set off flares and fireworks in the town square after soccer games, knowing that they can’t do anything until things get completely out of hand — at which point they tend to overreact.

The underlying problem is a total lack of basic restraint or self-discipline across the board in this country. It’s tough to find kids — of any background or origin — more unruly and undisciplined as here in France. And since “dogs don’t make cats,” as the French say, the parents are a big part of the problem. Everyone acts like they’re in their own living room while out in public. More often than not, the response you’ll get from a parent witnessing the annoyance caused by their offspring is that their kid has a right to express himself.

And since self-discipline and restraint are nonexistent, French cities have turned into garbage bins. Someone would think twice about littering or torching a city that’s adequately maintained. Citizens here treat French towns like dumps, or at most, react with a Gallic shrug to others doing so, because what’s one more piece of junk on a pile of trash?

French President Emmanuel Macron initially denounced police actions in the teenager’s case as inexcusable. So much for the cop’s presumption of innocence. Macron acted just like every French parent whose kid can do no wrong. It was only when kids across France — of an average age of 17, according to authorities — appeared to take Macron’s words as a license to act out and torch cities and public infrastructure across the country, that the president was forced to also denounce their behavior.

Misguided French policies have led to chronic unrest — like carbon tax on fuel that sparked the Yellow Vest protest movement, or the pension reform protests that suddenly moved the goalposts on benefits for which French have been taxed to death their entire working lives, or immigration without adequate societal integration. As citizens have taken to the streets, the cops sent out by the state to bear the brunt of popular frustration have adopted a heavy-handed approach to restoring order, with the destruction of 24 eyes and five hands during the Yellow Vest protests, for example. This recent police incident is viewed against the backdrop of this chronic heavy-handedness, which only adds fuel to the fire.

The view from abroad seems to be that France is descending into civil war over this latest incident. But as vivid as the images currently are, it will fizzle out sooner rather than later — if only because the French these days really don’t have the rigor, self-discipline, or attention span to conduct any kind of revolution.