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PARIS — France is slowly catching its breath after days of large-scale urban unrest, but a bigger challenge looms for President Emmanuel Macron: how to tackle the fundamental problems the riots have exposed.
Macron has walked a thin line between showing empathy and sending a message of toughness after a policeman shot and killed teenager Nahel M. last week, leading to days of riots. He flooded the streets with police in an effort to contain the violence.
This weekend there have been fewer arrests than on previous nights and the unrest appears to be easing, at least temporarily.
But the series of incidents has fanned the flames around police brutality and the treatment of racial minorities into a broader and violent rejection of French institutions.
On Saturday night, assailants drove a car into the house of the mayor of L’Haÿ-les-Roses, a southern suburb of Paris, injuring the official’s wife as she tried to flee with her young children.
Elsewhere in France, the violence triggered by the death of the teenager targeted many symbols of the French Republic: schools, police stations, libraries and other public buildings.
“An unprecedented movement has hit territories that were previously untouched [by violence]. Public buildings have been damaged, which was not the case during the last wave of protests in 2005,” said a French government official, who was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive issues more openly, referring to an outbreak of violence. who shook France suburbs for weeks in 2005.
Over the past few days, Macron has sought to strike a delicate balance between compassion and determination. He described the shooting of 17-year-old Nahel M., as he fled from police last week, as “inexcusable” and “unexplainable”. But Macron called the riots an “unacceptable manipulation of the death of a teenager”.
On Tuesday, he is expected to meet the mayors of more than 200 towns affected by the violence. The purpose of the meeting is to gather first-hand accounts from local officials, work on solutions and relay that the government supports local officials.
“The president wants to listen,” the French official said.
After cutting short his visit to a European summit last week, Macron tried to show he was leading the country, calling regular crisis cabinet meetings and issuing orders to his prime minister and ministers. On Saturday, he canceled a long-planned state visit to Germany.
Always in crisis mode
The list of meetings at the Elysee Palace is a familiar sight and a sign that the government is in crisis mode – once again.
The French president has only just emerged from a deep political crisis over pension reform this spring and his government now faces more unrest. Macron’s first term was equally turbulent, as he dealt with the Yellow Jackets protests, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-present threat of terrorism in France.
Macron has accumulated “difficult and painful crisis situations” which have “perplexed” the outside world, said Bruno Cautrès, a political science researcher at the Sciences Po institute.
“It’s as if France were a pressure cooker, [each crisis] reveals tensions, a societal conflict, tensions over the respect due to our institutions… Our country constantly invokes republican values, but it seems that whole sections of the population do not feel concerned by this,” he added. he declares.
The outpouring of shock and anger over the death of North African-born Nahel M. has also left many in France wondering about issues of discrimination, integration and criminality. in immigrant-dense suburbs around French cities. .
Public pressure to take a closer look at French policing practices and allegations of racism in the security forces beyond the review of rules of engagement is mounting. In 2017, for example, police won the right to shoot in several hypothetical scenarios, including when a driver refuses to stop and is considered a risk to life.
Beyond alleged discrimination by the police, bridging the widening gap between disadvantaged young people in the suburbs and French institutions will likely require more money to policies to address root causes and reduce social inequalities in areas such as education and social housing.
But tackling the problems in the suburbs is difficult at a time when the government is trying to cut spending. After resisting calls to back down in the face of peaceful protests against his landmark pension reforms, Macron seeking the checkbook shortly after protests in recent days could be seen as a reward for rioters.
The need to reconcile the country and embody law and order at a time when its room for maneuver is limited after losing a parliamentary majority last year is no small task for Macron.
He will have to keep a close eye on opposition parties as crime, identity and immigration – long issues the far right has campaigned on – take center stage. While far-right leader Marine Le Pen has refrained from fueling a backlash against the rioters, sticking to her strategy of embracing mainstream politics, her loyal lieutenant Jordan Bardella has led the charge against “criminals who owe “everything to the Republic”.
Recent unrest has exposed “fragilities” that could “encourage populist discourse”, admitted the same government official.
“[Our] the political response must be a reasonable response, which takes into account the reality and daily life of the French people,” he added. It’s easier said than done.