When Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of North African origin, was shot dead by police at a traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre on Tuesday morning, it looked like an event that would unite the French in shock and revulsion at the long-known violence and racism in the law enforcement community.
The killing was condemned across the political community, with President Emmanuel Macron calling it “inexplicable” and “inexcusable”, and even police authorities distancing themselves from the incident, which involved a teenager being shot at point-blank range simply because he refused to comply with the officer’s demands.
France’s far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, was initially on the back foot: this case, filmed and posted on the internet, seemed to prove the argument that minorities were systematically targeted by a police force that considers itself above the law.
Meanwhile the left-wing opposition, led by radical firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, said it was the consequence of decades of neglect in the banlieues, the poor, multi-ethnic, high-density suburbs around the big cities.
But that was before the riots. The five nights since the shooting saw Paris and other French cities plunge into chaos as rioters have run rampage. Schools, police stations and city halls have been set torched, while cars, trucks and buses have been set ablaze.
Mr Macron, whose second term has already been disrupted by opposition to his pension reforms, is now facing perhaps the biggest challenge to his presidency yet.
Although tens of thousands of police have been deployed to contain the violence, the anger has spread across the country, to Marseille, Lyon and Lille, with fears growing that they could disrupt the Tour de France cycling race. Mr Macron himself was obliged to cut short an EU summit in Brussels on Friday to return to Paris, and to postpone this week’s planned three-day state visit to Germany.
The rioting has also transformed the political discourse. The initial horror over the shooting of a teenager has now turned into a debate about law and order. This is fertile territory for Ms Le Pen, who has long railed against what she sees as France’s drift into permissiveness and lawlessness.
She lambasted the government on Twitter on Sunday as “a power that abandons all constitutional principles for fear of riots, which contributes to aggravating them”, adding, “Our country is getting worse and worse and the French are paying the terrible price for this cowardice and these compromises.”
She did not directly address the shooting but condemned the National Assembly for holding a minute’s silence for Nahel last week, saying, “Unfortunately, there are young people in our country every week…It’s terrible, but I think that the National Assembly should perhaps measure a little the minutes of silence that are carried out.”
And in a video address yesterday she lambasted the “anarchy”, called on authorities to declare a state of emergence or curfew, and attacked Mr Mélenchon for “conniving” and “morally exempting these criminal acts”, promising that they would face a reckoning with “the nation and history”.
Ms Le Pen has detoxified her image in recent years. She changed the name of her party from the National Front to the National Rally, and in last year’s presidential campaign, her posters simply call her “Marine”, handily distancing her from her xenophobic father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
The 54-year-old put pocketbook issues at the heart of her campaign, pointing to sharply rising fuel and food prices as proof of Mr Macron’s economic mismanagement. Her pivot was aimed at working-class voters struggling with rising costs, as she campaigned in rural France and former industrial towns.
She recast her party as a movement for the forgotten masses, bypassed by globalisation and the Paris elites, and even talked up her struggles as a single mother and her cat breeding. The rebrand has worked: she has neutralised many fears of her and normalised her image, with polls today rating her the nation’s second favourite political personality, behind the former prime minister Édouard Philippe.
The riots put Mr Macron in a bind. He was quick to capture the emotion after the shooting but has so far failed to contain the momentum of the subsequent anger. If he echoes Ms Le Pen’s language, he risks being called a hypocrite over the killing.
However, the longer the violence continues, the more Ms Le Pen will benefit. She can continue to blame the authorities for the chaos, saying this is the inevitable result of the moral laxity she has always warned against. And with Mr Macron term-limited, Ms Le Pen can look to the next presidential election, in 2027, as her moment.