Last September in Paris, I attended a screening of the Netflix feature Athena, about an apocalyptic insurrection following the videotaped killing of a teenager of North African descent by a group of men dressed as police. The unrest begins within an isolated French hyperghetto and blooms into a nationwide civil war, a dismal progression that no longer seems entirely far-fetched. To log on to social media or turn on the TV in France over the past week was to have been transported into Athena’s world.
Late last month, an officer in the Parisian banlieue of Nanterre shot Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent who was driving illegally, after he accelerated out of a traffic stop. His death has triggered days of violence that have convulsed the country and at times verged on open revolt. Groups of disaffected youth have incinerated cars, buses, trams, and even public libraries and schools. Roving mobs have clashed with armored police; giddy teens have ransacked sneaker and grocery stores; frenzied young men have filmed one another blasting what look to be Kalashnikovs into the sky.
When scenes like this appear in fiction, many people reflexively flinch. After Athena premiered in September, the far-right demagogue ?ric Zemmour dismissed the film as anti-law-and-order propaganda. Other critics have accused its creator, Romain Gavras, of indulging a reactionary and borderline racist depiction of life in the banlieues, one that plays into nationalist stereotypes of immigrant savagery. Before Athena, Gavras was already widely known for virtuosic, mind-bending camerawork in some of this century’s most visually stunning music videos–and for expansive, highly choreographed scenes about riots, mass demonstrations, and other depictions of social outcasts resisting authoritarian control. His video for “Stress,” by the French electronic duo Justice, follows a mostly Black gang of adolescents menacing the suburbs of Paris, beating up bystanders and aggressively occupying public space. In M.I.A.’s “Born Free,” redheads are rounded up and exterminated by U.S.-government agents. For “No Church in the Wild,” by Jay-Z and Kanye West, he shows a diverse mob of masked youth lighting up the streets of Prague with Molotov cocktails as militarized police officers on horseback beat them.
Gavras happens to be a friend of mine. As the pandemonium escalated over the past week, I texted him to say that Athena was prophetic.
But his lucid vision didn’t come from nowhere. In recent years, mass protest in France has trended toward ever greater violent disarray. President Emmanuel Macron’s government was effectively derailed by the “yellow vest” movement, and the ancillary unrest that it began lasted from 2018 to 2020, until the coronavirus pandemic effectively changed the subject. Earlier this year, the country was crippled by strikes and sometimes violent–and, yes, fiery–protests in response to Macron’s deeply unpopular pension reforms delaying retirement by two years. For the better part of the 21st century, the country has suffered from an ambient rage that remains partially inexplicable and knows no racial boundary. As the philosopher Pascal Bruckner told me when I called him, the sad truth is that “every type of protest now degenerates into a riot.”
At the same time, rioters seem to be getting younger and appear more willing to cross previously unthinkable lines. In L’Ha?-les-Roses, a suburban town south of Paris, several days ago, unidentified assailants smashed a car into the home of the mayor, Vincent Jeanbrun, and lit the automobile on fire in an attempt to destroy his house. Jeanbrun’s wife and children were asleep. Two of his family members sustained injuries trying to escape. Even as people in France have grown numb to excess, we sense that few limits remain. Jeanbrun correctly observed that this was an assassination attempt and that “democracy itself is under attack.” In all, 99 town halls and 250 police stations or gendarmeries have been stormed; about 3,400 people–on average, just 17 years old–have been arrested; more than 700 police officers have been injured; 5,000 vehicles have been burned; and 1,000 buildings have been damaged or looted.
Yet these incredible numbers still don’t convey the intensity of the destruction or the sheer nihilism that has seized and shocked a country that is quite familiar with protests and rioting. This time, according to Le Monde, just “five nights and as many days of violence have exceeded the severity of the riots in the fall of 2005, which lasted three weeks” and have remained a kind of national high-water mark of violent insurrection.
“One does not unleash violence with impunity,” Bruckner recently warned. “It is a fire that spreads with astonishing mimicry. The more we tolerate it, the more it becomes the only language of conflict.” The uprising has a purely memetic aspect–one evident in the Anglophone media’s haste to dub the current unrest “France’s George Floyd moment,” and in some French activists’ adoption of the American framework of structural racism to explain and at times even justify wanton violence and devastation. In his first remarks on the recent riots, Macron controversially observed the power of social media at play. “We’ve seen violent gatherings organized on several [social-media platforms]–but also a kind of mimicry of violence,” he said, according to Politico, adding that such networked contagion distances young people from reality. What no one can dispute is that this uprising is not reducible to a single killing.
“The spirit of rebellion can only exist in a society where a theoretical equality conceals great factual inequalities,” Camus wrote in The Rebel. “The problem of rebellion, therefore, has no meaning except within our own Western society.” Almost nowhere in the West is the equality among citizens articulated more forthrightly or consistently than in France; the United States may be the only exception. This might explain why even though France’s social safety net is far more generous than in Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other wealthy, diversifying European nations, malaise and overt fury–the indiscriminate violence that is always ready to erupt even as society becomes measurably less discriminatory–remain far more persistent here. Nor can the gap between beautiful philosophical promises and the granular disappointments of empirical reality be discounted entirely in any consideration of the spate of homegrown terrorism that marred the mid-2010s, when more citizens of France than any other Western nation went off to fight for the Islamic State, and the group’s sympathizers carried out a series of horrific massacres within France itself.
Since the Lyon riots in the early 1980s–which led to the 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism, widely viewed as a civil-rights turning point for the country’s Muslim minority–no riots in France have led to anything like a productive political movement. “It seems as if the neighborhoods exist in a political void, as if the anger and revolts do not lead to any political process, as if the elected officials comment on events rather than convey the anger,” the sociologist Fran?ois Dubet told Le Monde. This is what he calls “violence and silence,” taking Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous formulation of rioting as the language of the unheard one step further: In France today, rioting is the language of the mute.
The power of spectacle and rage works both ways and seldom favors underclasses simmering with resentment at the society in which they are fated to live. In Athena, the men dressed as police officers who are responsible for the viral killing are unmasked as neo-Nazis whose goal was to spark a rebellion in the banlieues that would cleave the country, submerging the legitimate frustrations of isolated and patrolled immigrant communities in a larger us-versus-them discussion of law, order, and public safety. Here, again, fiction and fact are skirting precipitously close. On Twitter and other platforms, the real-life French far right is also quickly becoming energized by the profusion of videos of street mayhem. Last week, two of the country’s main police unions released an astonishing coordinated statement. “Our colleagues, like the majority of citizens, can no longer bear the tyranny of these violent minorities. The time is not for union action, but for combat against these ‘pests,’” they declared before threatening their own revolt. “Today the police are in combat because we are at war. Tomorrow we will be in resistance and the government will have to become aware of it.”
In the world of Athena, the revelation that the uniformed killers are fascists offers the audience some catharsis. In real-life France, no such deus ex machina can tidy this story up. The same sickening plot just repeats. The riddle that grips this country today is one it has long professed to have solved: How do you make a multiethnic nation of equal citizens believethat libert?, ?galit?,and fraternit? truly exist? Until that question can be answered in a convincing way, France’s politics will continue to be made pathetically in the streets.