Riots in France require Macron to demonstrate capacity to retake control of country

Contrary to some expectations, French president swerves state of emergency as demanded by right-wing parties

French resident Emmanuel Macron cut short his participation at the EU summit in Brussels on Friday to return to Paris for an emergency cabinet meeting, the second in as many days, following three nights of rioting.

The unrest was sparked by the shooting death of Nahel, a 17-year-old of Algerian origin who was stopped by motorcycle police in the Paris suburb of Nanterre on June 27th. One of the policemen, who is under investigation for voluntary manslaughter, fired at close range into the car Nahel was driving, killing the youth with a bullet to the chest. A video of the incident spread quickly on social media, sparking the violence.

Contrary to some expectations, Macron did not declare a state of emergency, as demanded by right and far-right-wing political parties. The government declared such a state of emergency in 2005 to quell weeks of rioting around France that followed the accidental death of two boys of African and Arab descent who were electrocuted after hiding from police in a power substation.

The French president instead called on parents to “exercise responsibility”. A law passed in the wake of the 2005 riots allows the government to dock welfare payments of negligent parents.


Interior minister Gérald Darmanin had already deployed 40,000 police and gendarmes overnight from Thursday to Friday when violence escalated dramatically. According to the interior ministry, 875 people were arrested. There were 3,380 arson attacks, including 2,000 cars torched, and 492 buildings damaged.

By comparison, 10,000 cars were torched in three weeks of rioting in 2005.

The latest riots claimed their first fatality when a man was killed by a “stray bullet” in French Guiana.

At the crisis cabinet meeting, Macron praised the “rapid and adapted” reaction of security forces to the rioting. The police and gendarmerie counted 249 injured on Thursday night. Many are angry that a member of the force has been imprisoned.

Since he took office in 2017, Macron has endured jihadist attacks, including the beheading of a teacher, the gilet jaunes or yellow vest revolt, which started over a carbon tax, and most recently violent protests over changes to the pension system. The pension agenda passed, but pent-up hostility lingers towards Macron.

The president had until now been spared unrest in the immigrant suburbs, a problem that has festered for 40 years, and something every French leader dreads. He now urgently needs to demonstrate that he can retake control of his country.

Rioting on Thursday night spread to Marseilles, which was not previously affected, and to the Belgian capital Brussels, where youths told reporters they were in the streets “for the kid”.

Violence reached tiny French towns which few have heard of, such as Sanvignes-les-Mines, population 4,000, where the town hall was attacked.

Police said 1,000 looters invaded central Paris, where they smashed plate glass windows in the two-storey Nike shop in Les Halles shopping centre, and the Zara shop in the rue de Rivoli, near the Louvre. The gilet jaunes had made similar forays into the centre of the capital in 2018 and 2019, showing that violence cannot be limited to poor areas of the capital.

Macron is scheduled to travel to Berlin on a state visit from July 2nd through 4th. A German government spokesman said that Berlin is observing the riots with “a certain disquiet”. The British government warned its citizens to exercise caution when travelling to France.

France is scheduled to host the Rugby World Cup at nine venues in September and October, and the summer Olympic Games in July-August 2024.

Most humiliating for France, Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, called on the country to “seriously attack the profound problems of racism and discrimination among the forces of order”