France riots: La Grande Borne has regained a sense of calm. Local mafia members once again exercise their control from the doorways of this sprawling housing estate south of Paris, openly displaying their weapons while keeping their identities hidden.
After days of riots, there is now an absence of police presence.
One police officer, who wished to remain anonymous, spoke to us about the situation. Last week, he found himself confronting rioters in several estates around Paris as anger erupted across France following the killing of 17-year-old Nahel M. He was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop in Nanterre, west of Paris.
The officer responsible for firing through the car window is currently in custody facing charges of “voluntary homicide”.
The officer described the riots as “extremely violent.” However, the tensions between French suburbs and the police run deeper than sporadic outbursts of fireworks and Molotov cocktails.
Below the surface in places like La Grande Borne, there is a simmering distrust and resentment, less visible than the gangs carrying weapons but equally capable of exploding.
“When we intervene in an estate, there is fear on both sides,” the officer explained. “But the police should not be afraid. Fear does not help in making the right choices.”
The question now being asked, from the housing estates to the Élysée Palace, is how to prevent these tensions from reigniting.
Djigui Diarra, a filmmaker who grew up in La Grande Borne, one of the poorest housing estates in France, shared his experiences. Sitting in the simple concrete playground he frequented as a child, surrounded by low-rise apartment blocks, he recalled his first encounter with the police at the age of 10.
It was during a police identification check on an older member of his group whom he considered a “big brother.”
“They were very rude, and when my big brother responded, they pinned him down,” the 27-year-old recounted. “That was my first encounter with the police, and as a kid, I told myself, ‘they will be my natural enemy.'”
Around that time, France abandoned community policing, known as the “police of proximity,” a decision Djigui believes was a significant mistake.
“With the police of proximity, there was less violence, less criminality,” he said. “There was better communication; they respected people. You have to bring people together to understand each other.”
Now, the police only show up when trouble arises, he added.
Djigui, whose name means “hope” in Mali’s Bambara language, shared that he has been called derogatory names like “gorilla” and “monkey” by police officers during ID checks.
Four years ago, he released a film called Malgré Eux (In Spite of Them), exploring the racial divisions between residents and the police in his community. Other community leaders in different banlieues also raise similar issues.
Hassan Ben M’Barak, who leads a network of local associations in Gennevilliers, on the outskirts of Paris, emphasized the need for at least 20% to 25% of police officers patrolling the neighborhoods to come from minority ethnic backgrounds or the local community. He considers this aspect crucial.
Since 2005, the situation has become increasingly challenging to manage, not only due to changes in policing but also changes in funding policies that have shifted resources away from local associations on the ground towards urban regeneration.
One striking aspect this time, he noted, was that no association had called for calm, highlighting the loss of authority they once held to influence the situation.
This week, French media reported that the police officer charged with Nahel’s homicide told investigators that he fired his weapon out of fear that the 17-year-old would drive off and “drag” his police colleague along. The officer, Florian M, also denied threatening to shoot the teenager in the head.
The shooting and subsequent riots dominated French media for several days. However, many believe that media coverage plays an equally important role as policing and policies in fueling divisions between the banlieues and the rest of France.
“They need to report positive stories from the suburbs, not only during riots,” Djigui said. “This would reduce racism and fear in others.
“And those in the suburbs need to see every little brother, every little sister, as their own. They should consider every member of this estate as family.”
Djigui is currently working on a new series about policing in France’s suburbs, and he believes that people outside the banlieues are starting to grasp his message.
“When the yellow vest protests took place, they understood why we in the suburbs considered police brutality as abominable. I told them, ‘better late than never.'”
The yellow vest protests, which erupted across France in 2017, sparked a national debate about police brutality after several protesters were severely injured by the police.
For now, the fires in the banlieues have subsided, along with the attention they garnered. The towering apartment blocks surrounding France’s prosperous cities have once again faded from sight.
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