February 2, 2017: A “no-go zone” in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Police on patrol hear screams. They decide to check. While there, a young man insults them. They decide to arrest him. He hits them. A fight starts. He accuses a policeman of having raped him with a police baton. A police investigation quickly establishes that the young man was not raped. But it is too late; a toxic process has begun.
Without waiting for any further evidence, the French Interior Minister says that the police officers have “behaved badly.” He adds that “police misconduct must be condemned”. French President François Hollande goes to the hospital to give his support to the young man. The president says he has conducted himself in a “dignified and responsible manner.” The next day, a demonstration against the police is cobbled together. The demonstration turns into a riot.
Riots continue for more than two weeks. They affect more than twenty cities throughout France. They spread to the heart of Paris. Dozens of cars are torched. Shops and restaurants are looted. Official buildings and police stations are attacked.
The police are ordered not to intervene. They do what they are told to do. Few arrests take place.
Calm is slowly returning, but the riots can easily start again. France is a country at the mercy of large-scale uprisings. They can explode anytime, anyplace. French leaders know it, and find refuge in cowardice.
What is happening is the result of a corrosive development initiated five decades ago. In the 1960s, after the war in Algeria, President Charles de Gaulle directed the country toward closer relations with Arab and Muslim states.