1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

France riots: A legacy of colonial racism?

Marina Strauss in Brussels
July 3, 2023

The riots in France seem to have eased off, but what will remain is anger. The issue of racism which is linked to the country's colonial past is more often than not brushed aside.

Police walk past a wall daubed with the slogan "Justice for Nahel"
Although there's been a downturn in the violence across France, the issue of racism and its colonial past run much deeperImage: Eliot Blondet/picture alliance/abaca

Broken windows, burning cars, an assault on the home of a French mayor: These have been just some of the scenes across France over the last few days.  

All over the country, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets, sometimes violently, expressing their anger over the killing of 17-year old Nahel, a teenager of Algerian descent, who was shot dead by a police officer at a traffic stop last Tuesday. 

The clashes between the mostly young protesters and the police have raised questions about the sheer amount of violence and random destruction.

Mayor targeted by rioters in Paris suburb

But another topic has also emerged, the question how the killing of Nahel and the subsequent anger spilling on the streets is linked to systematic racism within French society and the country's long colonial past.

France's President Emmanuel Macron called the killing of Nahel "inexcusable" and "inexplicable." A description Crystal Fleming, a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University in New York, disagrees with: "It is not inexplicable," she told DW. "It is not a mystery. It is racism."

Fleming added that the protests and riots following the deadly shots fired by police were "a reaction to French racism which is linked to colonialism." Both, she says, are typically denied and erased [from collective memory] by French authorities and politicians — "despite centuries of racial oppression of its minorities and colonized populations."

France is still haunted by its colonial past

It is true that France was one of Europe's largest colonial powers. From the 16th century until the 1970s its leaders, like many others on the continent, believed their "civilizing mission" justified forcefully exploiting countries and territories all over the world. 

While the French revolution in 1789 promised "liberty, equality and fraternity" to all French men (not women, but that is another story) on the French mainland, those in the colonies could only dream of equal rights. Their day-to-day life was marked by repression. Men and women were forced to "assimilate” to French culture and language. 

France's role in Algeria, in particular, has remained a very sensitive topic. The North African country was first colonized in 1830 and then integrated into French national territory. When Algeria reclaimed its independence, a brutal war broke out that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, mostly on the Algerian side, and which eventually led to the end of French rule in 1962.

Demonstrators in 1961 holding up a banner that reads "Peace in Algeria"
France's history with Algeria is particularly fraughtImage: AFP/Getty Images

At around the same time, France was forced to relinquish control of its other colonies as well, mostly due to the success of independence movements. However, some oversea territories remain until the present. And the country has kept its economic, political and military influence in its former colonies, mainly on the African continent, for example by supporting authoritarian leaders to defend its interests.  

Current French President Emmanuel Macron has, more than any other head of state before him, acknowledged his country's colonial past as a "historic crime." He vowed to give back stolen artifacts and set up commissions looking into France's role in Algeria and during the genocide in Rwanda. 

But critics like Crystal Fleming claim that doesn't go far enough. France, many say, should assume its full responsibilities for the past, for example when it comes to acknowledging crimes committed during its colonial rule. 

However, Macron has stated that he does not intend to "ask for forgiveness" over his country's role in Algeria "as it would break all bonds." 

'The French government continues to portray itself as non-racist'

Elements of French society and schoolbooks have long argued that colonialism had its positive aspects. In 2017, far-right politician Marine Le Pen said French colonization "gave a lot" to former colonies. The fact that Le Pen made it into the run-off elections in 2017 and 2022 and has a chance to become France's next president shows how widespread this thinking still is. 

At the same time, "the French government continues to portray itself as non-racist," says Fleming. In fact, France has long portrayed itself as "colorblind," meaning it collects no census or other data on the race of its citizens. 

However, this is not what many people of migrant descent, like those who are now protesting, are experiencing. "There is a problem of systematic racism in the French police," said Rokhaya Diallo, an author and one of France's best-known racial equality activists. The French government has repeatedly denied that accusation. 

According to a studyby the country's human rights ombudsman, young men who are perceived as Black or Arab are 20 times more likely to be stopped by French police. And many of those young men trace their roots back to former French colonies and live in the so-called banlieues, the suburbs of big cities like Paris, Marseille or Lyon. 

These banlieues, as author Johny Pitts wrote in his book "Afropean — Notes from Black Europe," were actually a side effect of the creation of the Paris so many love and cherish nowadays. In the mid-19th century, funded mainly by colonial riches from Africa, Napoleon III commissioned city planner Georges-Eugene Haussmann to create a new Paris with wider streets and a better sewage system. 

Those with smaller budgets were pushed to the outskirts. After World War II, high-rise buildings were constructed in response to economic growth which encouraged migration. 

Historically, these banlieues have been neglected by the French government. Nicolas Sarkozy, a former president, suggested in 2005 as interior minister minister cleaning the suburbs with a high-pressure cleaner. 

Ever since, programs have been set up, talks have been held, but not much has changed.

A resident of Nanterre, where Nahel was killed, told DW's correspondent in Paris, Sonia Phalnikar, that the French government created "this situation of deprivation," adding "I know poverty and misery. And it seems we can't get rid of it."

Edited by: Rob Mudge