July 11, 2023  Teen Vogue


You could be forgiven for thinking that recent events in France have little to do with race. This is the story we are told: An innocent teen is killed by the police in a Paris suburb, kicking off days of protests. Tens of thousands take to the streets, thousands are arrested and detained, and hundreds of stores are looted. Fires rip through the streets, burning as bright as the rage of France’s youth. President Emmanuel Macron chalks the unrest up to video games and juvenile delinquency.

Days after 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk was fatally shot during a traffic stop, explorations into the event’s significance still have not told the whole story. Many of the articles that I’ve seen focus on the policing angle — Why do the people we hire to keep us safe frequently murder us? — but they miss the race angle entirely. Nahel’s death was not an isolated tragedy in an otherwise peaceful and colorblind society. Nahel was visibly North African — his parents are from Morocco and Algeria — in France, a country with an incredibly brutal colonial history in North AfricaIn the words of Mounia, Nahel’s mother, the policeman “saw an Arab face, a little kid, and wanted to take his life.”

Not coincidentally, many of those arrested in the wave of protests that followed fit a similar description. The average age of the protestors was 17 and some of those arrested were as young as 12. While I wish I could tell you how many of them were North African, it is illegal in France to collect statistics based on race, ethnicity, or religion. Despite France’s success in codifying racial blindness, the discriminatory nature of French policing has been well-documented. This is especially true in the “banlieues,” the historically neglected suburbs where France’s most marginalized live, including millions from North Africa and other former French colonies. France’s police crackdowns on protesters, including those following the George Floyd protests of 2020, have been called “draconian” by Amnesty International.

As a child of Moroccans and a visibly Black person, I never harbored the Francophilia that other Americans seemed to revel in. In college, I was shocked to find that an entire community of African American creatives, including the acclaimed writer James Baldwin, moved to France in the mid-20th century. I was even more shocked when I learned that they often felt safer there than they did in America, freed from an oppressive racial hierarchy. How could they feel that way about a country that colonized my ancestors in North Africa and came to understand its population as inferior? Did they not see that racial hierarchy?

As it turns out, they quickly discovered it. Black expats in France during the 1940s and ’50s came to witness the criminalization of North Africans firsthand, a criminalization that was exacerbated by the backdrop of Algeria’s bloody fight for independence. This fight for independence, hard-won in 1962, influenced how North Africans and Black Americans — to say nothing of the rest of the world — saw race, political ideology, and global struggle. There is a historic link between the Algerian struggle and the Black Panther movement, and the Black Panthers famously opened an office in Algeria in 1970.

In a documentary that came out that year, Baldwin declares: “The Algerian in France is the n***** in America.”

Baldwin was not alone in reflecting on the plight of the North African community in France. In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), psychiatrist Frantz Fanon recalls being stopped multiple times by policemen who “mistook” him for an Arab and released him when they found out that he was simply Black. William Gardner Smith, a lesser-known Black writer from Philadelphia who also sought refuge in Paris, wrote a novel focused on these racial tensions. The Stone Face (1963) follows an African American protagonist to Paris where he quickly realizes the parallels between the Arab experience in France and the one he just fled. He witnesses Arabs being brutalized by the police as well as the October 1961 Papon massacre — a massacre in which at least a hundred Algerians were murdered and some of their bodies dumped into the Seine. At the end of the novel, the protagonist realizes that racism cannot be escaped and returns home to fight for “America’s Algerians.”

Recently, Macron described Nahel’s death as “inexplicable.” It is typical for France to play dumb when it comes to its own racism. After all, one of the nation’s purported tenets is “égalité.” Like many countries, it cloaks itself in racial blindness when it is convenient. At other moments, it creates and enforces a racial hierarchy, especially in populations it wants to control. During the colonial era, France decided that Arabs and “Berbers” (Amazigh people) should be classified as two different races. France also distinguished between those races and the “Black race.” In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon writes about the colonial strategy of using soldiers of color to put down insurrections — “‘men of color’ who nullified the liberation efforts of other ‘men of color.’” Similarly, the very idea of a distinct “North Africa” is a colonial invention.

If the streets of France have proven one thing during these protests, it is the importance of solidarity. “Don’t forgive or forget” has been a particularly powerful refrain of the French protests and one that has haunted me in recent days. The slogan is a reminder that when injustice prevails, people will always be around all over the world to bear witness. It serves as a directive I plan to follow.