France’s president Emmanuel Macron, mauled by workers’ protests over pensions and then anti-police riots, is seeking revenge against those who revolted. From January to May, 13 national days of action saw up to 3.5 million people join furious demonstrations over pensions. But the union leaders did not call a general strike.
Macron was weakened but his attacks went through. Then the police assassination of Nahel, a 17-year-old high school student of Algerian origin, on 27 June triggered a widespread uprising in working class areas. Much of the left and the unions stood apart from—or condemned—the riots. They wasted the potential to revive the pension rebellion alongside the courageous battles against the cops.
Now Macron, the police and the courts are seeking to intimidate future rioters with brutal punishments. This is the cost of failing to remove him. Speaking recently from one of France’s colonial possessions, Macron said the lesson of the riots was “Order, order, order.” “Our country needs a return to authority at every level, starting with the family,” Macron added.
His speech came shortly after four Marseille police officers were charged with beating a man and “leaving him for dead”. The decision to detain one of the cops, who shot the victim in the head with a rubber bullet, led to a police mutiny. National police chief Frédéric Veaux said, “A police officer should not be in prison, even if he may have committed serious faults in the course of his work”.
Hundreds of other cops went on strike, calling in sick or working to rule. The state continues to let them do this. The police are defending a vicious near-murder. The victim of the Marseille cops, known as Hedi—again from a north African background—had just left work when he and a friend encountered police officers in the early hours of 2 July.
They shot him in the head with a riot gun and beat him so badly he suffered a broken jaw and lost part of his vision in one eye. While he was in a coma, doctors had to remove a large part of his skull, leaving his head disfigured. According to the doctors, I should have been a vegetable,” he told the press.
The toll from the riots is brutal. On the night of 1 July, cops firing “flashball” grenades killed Mohamed, a delivery worker, in Marseille. A few days later in Mont Saint-Martin police shot Aimene, a security guard, with a “bean bag”, a cartridge containing lead. Aimene is still in a coma. Police also blinded five people, tore off someone’s hand with a grenade, and beat dozens of others.
The French police made 3,400 arrests in four nights of riots. About half of those arrested have faced a court—and judges have found 95 percent guilty and sent two-thirds to prison. The state has incarcerated some 600 people. It’s a conveyor belt of injustice, initiated from the top. In comparison, in a year of the Yellow Vests revolt, the state handed down 3,204 convictions and jailed 440 Yellow Vests.
The Contre Attaque website comments, “In terms of human damage, judicial treatment and the arsenal deployed, the repression of June-July 2023 is quite simply unprecedented since the Algerian war. And the worst bit?
“The media hardly speaks of this incredible repression. It is considered normal, legitimate, indisputable since it is exerted on non-white bodies, living in the suburbs, and against a revolt that does not take the ‘classic’ forms of protest.”
Isn’t that very similar to most of the British left and the unions’ response to the state onslaught against Just Stop Oil? Since JSO launched its campaign on 14 February 2022, police have arrested over 2,400 people and 138 people have spent time in prison, many without trial.
Yet union leaders and Labour politicians prevent a growing wave of resistance from the strikes to the suppression of environmental protest, and the new anti‑union laws. We shouldn’t overstate the power of Macron or the Tories. But effective resistance means bringing together the different elements of protest.
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Historian John Newsinger writes