On Duty: The Aftershock of Police Violence in France

The killing in late June of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in Paris, with a bullet fired point blank through a car window by a policeman, prompted a wave of rioting across cities in France. The damage from the riots was considerable, but more considerable still has been the aftershock at all levels of society.

Protestors climb on street signs during the protest to the death of 17-year-old Nahel, who was shot in the chest by police in Nanterre on June 27, 2023. Photo: Ibrahim Ezzat / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Initially, this included signs of a new public receptiveness to the grieving, angry reminders from those on the brunt of racialized violence who have long been calling for radical reform of police practices in France.

But the pendulum quickly swung the other way: first, into outrage at the levels of destruction of public and private property as the riots ensued, and second, buoyed by this outrage, an increasingly virulent emphasis on the moral and social failure of families, on the need for more law and order, and the rapid normalizing of the notion that French youth need to be ‘recivilized’ in a broad-brush indictment aimed at young people from the poorest districts whose parents and grandparents typically arrived in France as workers through the different phases of colonial and postcolonial immigration.

And so, two months later, as young people across the nation prepared to return to the classroom, Macron took the helm of ‘national education’: he appointed one of his closest advisors to the top of the vast Ministry that oversees one of the biggest consolidated workforces in the world and, more symbolically still, reaffirmed the Presidential prerogative over this key instrument of Republican order, defining it as of his ‘reserve’.

The language that Macron has adopted is an explicit throwback to the foundational years of the Third Republic, the highpoint of the paternalist, civilizing mission in France and into its colonial dependencies. The result so far has been to displace all attention from the issues of policing by exacerbating divisions and discomfort when the new Minister of Education asserted his right to dictate what is acceptable dress within the walls of the secular school system (banning the abaya). And while the media have since gone to town on discussions of what dress is too markedly ‘religious’ or, in more lurid contexts, what is sufficiently ‘revealing’ to be safely secular, the anger in poor, ethnically and culturally mixed areas continues to seethe, the dispossession grows of young bodies prevented from moving at ease and in peace through the particular state of the world that is France today, while those on the sidelines of the most grievous violence, or caught within the machine as teachers required to toe the ministerial line, look on in stunned and perhaps increasingly morbid anxiety.

What will it take to get off the back foot, particularly from these sideline positions?

If there is one lesson that this new school year has already made abundantly clear, it has to be the abrupt disappearance of those timid signs of recognition of police responsibility in the ever-deeper rift between disenfranchised, racialized people and the institutions of public life. This is a hard lesson to swallow for at least two reasons, and especially from within the ranks of educational and research institutions.

One, it reveals the brazen disregard by the current government for the accumulated evidence of France’s failure to deal with ethnic profiling and the excessive use of force by the police; evidence built up over decades of academic work but also increasingly upheld by international observers such as the Council of Europe, Amnesty International, and even the UN.

And two, it ringfences the very terrain where it is possible to imagine the seeds of alliance across key constituencies of social discord, which have also felt the violent arm of the French police in recent months and years, arguably back to the Yellow Vest movement. It is difficult to imagine the political formation that would unite the car-dependent, peri-urban lower middle-class, who donned ‘gilets jaunes’ in 2019 and who are now watching the cost of living rise ever faster, with the disabused youth of mass-housing blocks, the professional and salaried class that came out en masse last spring against the recent round of pension reform. And perhaps even more to see in turn how to unite those groups in turn with the climate activists whose opposition to major infrastructural works has also ended in deadly riots. But there is no question that they all distrust, in some cases hate, the police.

The perspective of building an expedient alliance on the strength of outrage against the disproportionate use of state violence is therefore compelling. But it is also perilous. To be clear, there is no more pressing, and daunting, task than the full-scale dismantling of the singular culture of ‘maintien de l’ordre’ in France, with its long roots in the violence of colonization and the wars of independence, in Algeria, in particular. But this is well-established, and meanwhile not only does the crushing evidence of this need quickly overshadow any other areas of possible debate across the divide between those who lean, when push comes to shove, with ‘law-and-order’ and those who fear the police; it also tends to hold us in its thrall, captivated by our own appall.

So the grounds for a political formation elude us, while the life-threatening blight of the police risks fixating our capacities to reveal potentially emancipatory currents circulating within the overarching condition of injustice borne primarily by young Black and Arab people in France.

And yet, what if we were to look for insight and inspiration to the example of ‘post-revanchist’ geography that has sought to identify strands of ‘messier,’ and at times more hopeful, practice from within a dominant critique of the neoliberal city? Gibson-Graham’s work (2006), particularly as developed by Cloke and May (2014), offer good examples of what it might mean to hear ‘quiet’ forms that disrupt habitual analytical categories and produce unexpected ‘crossovers’ (Bayat, 2013). In the French context, one such form would be the expression of ‘devoir’ or duty, a feature of the increasingly muscular posture adopted by the head of State, but also arguably a key element in a changing lexicon of what it means to resist and to organize.

Duties before rights

The modern concept of duty is inextricable from the development of state formations built on structures of public service, and within these structures, the idea of being ‘on duty’ is so idiomatic that it almost escapes our attention. Macron’s presidency has, however, been marked by an amplification of the rhetoric of ‘devoir’ in ways that are symptomatic of significant shifts within and beyond the language of Republicanism.

Emerging first as a reaffirmation of the notion of ‘devoir’ (which means both duty and, more prosaically, is the French term for school homework) and as part of an earlier wave of reform that has challenged the emancipatory dimension of education, the discourse of obligation and responsibility took on a particular edge in France in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, as Macron sought to drive home vaccination requirements by insisting that the responsible citizen ‘has duties before rights’. The same message also targeted migrant workers, when his answer to a group of people protesting difficulties in accessing their immigration rights in 2021 was, again, that their duties (presumably to wait respectfully) precede their rights.

The significance of this reversal of the structural principles of the Republic is not to be underestimated: where the contractual framework of delegation, underpinned by the rights of free citizens, engages a set of duties to protect these rights, including potentially to bear arms in defense of the nation, but also to attend school for a prescribed period of time, Macron’s declarations mark a progressive slippage towards a virile affirmation of the state’s right to command obedience.

In response, the left-leaning Paris City Hall – a key alternative platform in a constitutional regime dominated by the office of President – has signaled its opposition with a recent public information campaign reinforcing the principle of public service across billboards that state ‘it is our duty to enable you to exercise your rights.’ The position is virtuous, but also largely rhetorical. On the one hand, its mandate extends only across the 2 million who live in the capital itself, with the greatest concentration of wealth in France. And on the other, more significantly no doubt, it reaffirms the prerogative of the public authorities as the guardian of ‘rights’ in the face of increasing disaffiliation within grassroots organizations, particularly where immigrant rights are concerns, for whom the questions are not (only) about obtaining recognition from the state, but drawing attention to the historical, political and economic fact of immigration as an inextricable part of French society.

Woven within this increasingly bold posture, and in addition to strategies of affirmation that supersede the national framework in the work of transforming (racializing, feminizing, queering) the ‘body politic,’ there is also evidence of new postsecular formations within which a different rhetoric of ‘devoir’ is both prevalent and complex. These too need unpacking.

The ‘devoir de solidarité’ is one such expression, around which cluster arguments mobilized in the context of the criminalization of practices such as mountain rescue, or food distributions, aimed at vulnerable, undocumented people, but also more localized alliances across class or race-related situations, or even intimate occasions of action. Another is the ‘devoir d’hospitalité,’ also a rallying point for opposition to increasingly ferocious immigration laws, but also a localized experience. Both tend still to be coloured by universalist or humanist principles, and so open to the critique that they mask the entrenched realities of injustice or, in the case of criminalization, the political motivations for assisting in border-crossing.

But this is to ignore the increasing forms of self-authorisation that seek their source in more specific impulses of obligation, even if they still also invoke the generality of ‘humankind.’ These may fall within the perimeter of forms of life that are easily recognizable to us: family, a neighbourhood, a ‘community’ of likeminded people. And religious sentiment of multiple faiths is a frequent aspect. But evidence within urban areas marked by high levels of transience and diverse life trajectories also shows that newly emerging and locally inflected feelings of ‘duty’ or responsibility increasingly shape efforts to prevail in particular ways against or despite the imperatives dictated by the authorities.

What sources of obligation do these alternative duty-forms invoke? What combination of historical and contextual elements they draw upon to supplement a feeling of necessity with a narrative that sustains this experience over time? How does the individual motivation to fulfill them intersect with a sense of collective duty? And towards what do these questions that approach ‘duty’ as responsive, self-perpetuating and localized, as opposed to categorical lead us?

These are the questions that we need to explore to grasp ‘duty’ as a contemporary phenomenon of multiple configurations: configurations which adjust according to effect and circumstance, rather than answering to principles that underpin or require obedience, or defaulting to an enlightened State charged with the responsibility of guaranteeing public life against the infringements of private interests. These instances of ‘duty’ may not bear the form of recognizable social or political movements, lacking the more explicit markers of affiliation or membership, but the suggestion that this blogpost would like to end on is that one locus where we can see the renewal of political life today is precisely in the way that expressions of duty combine affect, or the ‘pull’ of feeling obligated, with attention to being and staying effective.

  • See also Anna-Louise Milne’s discussion of one particular example of such a new duty-form, also instantiated in Paris in this blog post entitled ‘Grounded,’ on the University of London’s Environmental Humanities Research Hub.
  • Anna-Louise Milne is a Professor at the University of London Institute in Paris and a member of the  RCN-funded Co-Duties project at PRIO.





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