[Reportage] “Immigrants will never be considered French”: A Korean reporter heads to Nanterre

Posted on : 2023-07-05 17:33 KST Modified on : 2023-07-05 17:33 KST
The suburb of France has been in a state of unrest since police shot dead a teenager of Algerian descent on June 27
The windows of a store in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris to its northwest, have been shattered amid unrest following the death of Nahel Merzouk, an Algerian teen who was shot and killed by police on June 27. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
The windows of a store in Nanterre, a suburb of Paris to its northwest, have been shattered amid unrest following the death of Nahel Merzouk, an Algerian teen who was shot and killed by police on June 27. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

“Immigrants will never be considered French. That’s the reality.”

Umit Donmez, 41, an independent journalist that I met on Monday afternoon in Nanterre, in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, was one of the first people to arrive at the scene when protests erupted there a week ago.

On the morning of June 27, Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of Algerian descent, was shot and killed in the middle of Nanterre by a police officer. As a journalist, Donmez felt compelled to cover as a journalist.

But that wasn’t all. Donmez was also forced to revisit a lifelong injustice: He was born in Türkiye and is a second-generation immigrant who arrived in France with his parents at the age of 2. He now works as a freelance journalist, sending stories to news agencies in Türkiye.

“The police pointed guns at me as soon as they laid eyes on me. They only put them down when I shouted that I was a journalist.”

The guns aimed at Donmez, mistaking him as a protestor, were rubber bullet devices, weapons that can inflict lethal injuries.

The remains of a torched car and uprooted signposts still litter the streets of Nanterre on July 3. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
The remains of a torched car and uprooted signposts still litter the streets of Nanterre on July 3. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

Protests erupted in Nanterre mere hours after news of Nahel’s death became public. The day after, the demonstrations spread across the country. Over the past six days, 5,600 cars and 1,000 buildings have been torched or vandalized. Over 250 police stations and 99 town halls have been attacked by protestors.

French authorities have chosen a heavy-handed response, deploying 45,000 police officers and mobilizing armored vehicles and SWAT teams.

So far, more than 3,354 people have been arrested by police. Those arrested have an average age of 17, and 60 percent of them have no prior criminal record.

On the first day of the protests, when emotions ran high in the heated environment, the protesters treated Donmez with hostility.

They let down their guard when they realized that he was not a journalist from a mainstream French media outlet.

“They didn’t cooperate with me until I confirmed that I was not from BFM,” he said, referring to the French broadcaster. “They don't trust these sorts of media because they think they are biased [against immigrants].”

Glass panes on a bus stop in Nanterre have been shattered, with shards of glass still littering the ground on July 3. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Glass panes on a bus stop in Nanterre have been shattered, with shards of glass still littering the ground on July 3. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

Donmez called the recent protests in France “an outburst of anger that has been building up for a long time.”

“It’s about discrimination, double standards, and injustice,” he remarked.

As of Monday, almost a week after the incident, the protests seemed to have subsided somewhat. But the air in Nanterre, the epicenter of the outrage, is still tense.

Traces of the fiery protests still peppered the streets. Of 19 cars parked along one side of half a kilometer stretch of Av. Pablo Picasso, 10 had been torched, leaving only skeletal remains. The glass panes of bus stops had all been shattered. Traffic barriers had been wrenched from the pavement, and metal signposts were bent out of shape if not uprooted entirely.

Everywhere there was glass, there were signs of the heat of the protests: smashed ATM machine screens, shattered windows of supermarkets and restaurants. Spray-painted messages reading “F*** the police” and “Justice for Nahel” filled the walls of the neighborhood.

A man, warily watching as I, an outsider, took pictures of the scene, pointed his wooden bat at me and told me to leave. A local onlooker explained, “It’s dangerous here,” and suggested that I take off my press badge, stop taking pictures, and leave the area quickly.

Amid protests over the police killing of an Algerian teen, an ATM screen was destroyed in Nanterre, France. (Noh JI-won/The Hankyoreh)
Amid protests over the police killing of an Algerian teen, an ATM screen was destroyed in Nanterre, France. (Noh JI-won/The Hankyoreh)

Nearly no white people could be seen on the streets. As of 2021, France was home to around 7 million immigrants, or 10.3% of the overall population. A significant number of these immigrants live in banlieues, or suburbs, like Nanterre some 10 kilometers from the Parisian urban center.

Only upon reaching an area filled with newer, taller buildings where the metro train runs did I see white people, including Damien, 26.

“It’s true that the police made a mistake, but there’s no need to destroy supermarkets or banks,” he shared. “I doubt whether they know why they’re in the streets, or what the protests are even about.”

Flowers and written messages fill the spot where police shot and killed Nahel Merzouk on June 27 in Nanterre, France. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Flowers and written messages fill the spot where police shot and killed Nahel Merzouk on June 27 in Nanterre, France. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

There is a difference in point of view of the death of Nahel and the clashes between protestors and police among French locals that proves difficult to bridge.

Sami, 44, who works at a restaurant in Paris, said that racism was the cause of the unrest. “It’s something people of color like me experience daily,” she added. Sami was born in France to Algerian immigrants.

“There are two classes of citizens in France: whites and immigrants,” she shared. “We’re stopped by police on the street three to five times more than white people.”

Quoting a 2017 study by a civil rights research organization, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that in the last five years, men perceived to be Black or Arab were stopped for identification by police at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts. Men of color were nine times as likely to have been stopped in excess of five times by police.

When I asked if she thought that some of the protestors’ actions were excessively violent, Sami responded, “The current social structure itself is violent,” repeating her point back to me three times for emphasis.

“No matter how smart I am or how much I study, good jobs go to white people. I can’t get a job because of my obviously Arab name, or my address in the outskirts of Paris [where immigrants tend to live].”

By Noh Ji-won, Berlin correspondent

Graffiti in remembrance of the teen who was shot and killed by police can be seen along many walls in Nanterre, France. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)
Graffiti in remembrance of the teen who was shot and killed by police can be seen along many walls in Nanterre, France. (Noh Ji-won/The Hankyoreh)

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