I predict a riot: France in flames

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


Over recent years, France has seemed to be constantly in flames. Thousands taking to the streets, mass arrests, vehicles set ablaze, buildings ransacked. The most recent unrest came after an unarmed teenager, Nahel Merzouk, was shot by police following a car chase in Nanterre. The riots afterwards were perhaps the most violent yet, and reflect how many from France’s migrant communities, often in segregated and deprived banlieue housing estates, feel totally disconnected from and discriminated against by the French authorities.

Taking to the streets has not been confined to the marginalised. Earlier this year, the prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, used Article 49.3 of the French constitution to force through President Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular pension-reform plan without a vote in parliament. As a result, millions were up in arms. Public militancy was so intense that a planned visit by King Charles was postponed.

And who can forget the gilets jaunes (yellow vests), dressed in their unmistakable hi-viz jackets, blockading highways and petrol stations, occupying roundabouts and toll booths, and marching through town centres. These protests in 2018 were initially sparked by a hike in fuel tax, but escalated to embody a wider resentment towards the status quo that became associated with international grassroots resistance to technocratic rule, far and wide.

This contemporary France seems far removed from the romanticised ideal of a liberal, secular republic based on a revolutionary land of liberty, equality and fraternity for all. Institutionalised rioting, racial segregation, deep-seated religious tensions – from the Charlie Hebdo massacre to the state’s burqa ban, heavy-handed, paramilitary style policing is now the order of the day. Following the Hamas attacks on Israel, a blanket ban was imposed on pro-Palestinian protests. What on earth has happened?

When Macron was first elected president in 2017, he talked hopefully of a better, fairer future and promised to overcome the left-right divide, to rule by consensus. Now, as Nabila Ramdani, a French journalist of Algerian descent and author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic argues, Macron rules by decree over an increasingly divided society.

Ramdani, herself born and raised in a neglected Paris suburb, will discuss these shifts along with a panel of respondents.

Dr Marie Kawthar Daouda
lecturer in French language and literature, Oriel College, University of Oxford; author, L’Anti-Salomé; fellow of Ralston College, Savannah

Dr Charles Devellennes
senior lecturer, University of Kent; author: The Macron Régime: the Ideology of the New Right in France

Nabila Ramdani
journalist and broadcaster; author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic

Dr Ralph Schoellhammer
commentator and podcaster; lecturer, Webster University Vienna and MCC Brussels

Fraser Myers
deputy editor, spiked; host, the spiked podcast