Last week’s rioting in France saw over 3,600 arrests, including 1,100 minors. Courts are already handing out long jail sentences to supposed culprits — answering the political demand for vengeance even as the suburbs’ plight goes ignored.

Demonstration in Nanterre, west of Paris, against police violence, June 29, 2023. (Rona Lorimer)

It’s like a trophy wall. Éric Mathais, chief prosecutor in the Paris suburb of Bobigny, has been posting daily summaries of courtroom “results” to his LinkedIn page. His jurisdiction — like many others across France — is holding rapid trials for people arrested in the riots kicked off by the police killing of seventeen-year-old Nahel Merzouk in Nanterre on June 27.

This Tuesday alone, some nineteen individuals were tried in Bobigny, the main court in the Seine-Saint-Denis département north of Paris — an area that saw some of the most intense scenes of looting, property damage, and arson attacks. These trials were often conducted in fast-tracked hearings designed to mete out a swift penal response; critics argue it bends defendants’ rights to due process. Facing a body of evidence largely assembled by police investigators, defense attorneys often only receive their clients’ dossier the morning of the trial, leaving them just hours to prepare their case.

Of the nineteen riot-related defendants tried in Bobigny on Tuesday, three were acquitted, while one obtained a delay in proceedings. The other fifteen were convicted and handed punishments ranging from community service, suspended sentences under an electronic bracelet, and punitive fines all the way up to years-long prison sentences.

Crackdown

These are just a handful of the people being crammed through France’s justice system after the largest riots against police violence since 2005. Over thirty-six hundred individuals have been arrested after a week of unrest, including over eleven hundred minors. Upward of three hundred eighty people have already received sentencing, out of the nearly one thousand that have been deferred to the courts for trial as of Tuesday, according to figures released by the justice ministry. Sixty percent of those arrested have no criminal record. The average age of those taken into custody is between seventeen and eighteen, according to Gérald Darmanin, President Emmanuel Macron’s hard-line interior minister.

The riots have abated since last weekend, and the brunt of the state’s response has migrated to the courtroom. In a memorandum handed down to state prosecutors, Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti called for magistrates to apply a “rapid, firm and systematic” response to the unrest.

“I want firmness,” he told France Inter radio on July 3. “I also want to get parents’ attention, in two ways. First, we need to talk about public morals — ladies and gentlemen, pay closer attention to your children! Second, we need to remind parents that when they are so careless as to threaten their childrens’ education, health, and security, it’s an offense that’s punishable by up to two years in prison and a €30,000 fine.”

Kids on Trial

For now, however, it’s the kids that are on trial. Emil, Samir, and Hassan were arrested on Friday, June 30 (the names of all defendants cited in this report have been changed). They were allegedly part of a crowd of about thirty people who threw Molotov cocktails and ransacked the entryway of Bobigny town hall at around 3:30 a.m. on June 29. Of the dozens of people who participated in the early morning assault, these three young men were traced by authorities, who found Emil’s cell phone left inside after the crowd fled the scene as police reinforcements arrived. CCTV images and the police statement likewise attested to the presence of a “corpulent” young black man at the front of the crowd, whom the judge pointed to as Emil.

Much of the prosecutor’s case, however, was built on the findings in Emil’s phone, which investigators were able to easily access because it was left without a passcode lock. In a Snapchat message chain called “tonight” including dozens of members, the three young men were identified as posting messages in response to spectacular news and images of the riots going viral, such as “Thank you to the real soldiers” or “The cops are totally overrun,” and “We’ll get vengeance, we’ll fuck them, just like they got the kid [i.e., Nahel].” Samir wrote: “Let’s get 100l of gas and burn everything — jewelry stores, the FNAC [a big-box technology and bookstore chain], the ATMs are wide-open” adding “we have to break down the doors of the town hall, to the courthouse! we have to, we don’t get a war like this everyday!”

“Flipping through the chat, the investigating officers had to make a selection,” Armando Frignati, one of the attorneys at the trial, told Jacobin. “They picked out the people who seemed the most fired up, although all they really shared was the fact that they were in the same chain of messages.”

Once in custody, Emil confessed that he was at the riots at Bobigny’s mayor’s office. “I joined in so I wouldn’t get a hard time in the neighborhood the next day,” he told the courtroom, claiming that while he initially left his apartment out of curiosity, just to film what was going on, he ultimately ran straight to the front of the crowd moments later, out of social pressure.

Although prosecutors took the Snapchat message as incitements, the only act that actually transpired was the attack on the town hall. In fact, the most hyperbolic messages in the group chat were sent after the early-hours assault on the building and had no direct connection to what actually occurred.

It’s a detail that makes the prosecution’s presentation of Emil, Hassan, and Samar as “gang leaders” behind the assault all the more tenuous, according to Frignati. “Their argument, essentially, is that because you were there, and because you sent these messages, you’re clearly an accomplice,” Frignati told Jacobin.

Thanks to cell-tracing technology, investigators were also able to locate the presence of Samir and Hassan’s phones in the vicinity of the town hall. A fourth individual identified in the chat was also eventually arrested in connection with the same events but was tried in juvenile court.

“What’s the difference between being there and participating?” the judge repeatedly asked Samir, who was arrested in the possession of several articles of clothing looted from a mall in the nearby town of Drancy — acts to which he confessed. Samir was sentenced to twelve months in jail without possibility of parole. Emil, in whose apartment police officers also found a firearm unconnected to the rioting when it was searched on June 30, was sentenced to two years behind bars.

“Just the fact of being present on the scene where rioting is taking place seems to mean that you’re liable to face charges,” says Frignati. His client Hassan was left with a relatively lenient sentence: a six-month suspended prison spell and twelve months’ house arrest with an electronic bracelet. “They’re looking to make an example.”

Profiled

In a different courtroom, four men were tried for the ransacking of a shop in Aubervilliers on the night of June 29 to June 30. Unable to speak French, three of the defendants faced questioning alongside a court-appointed translator. The one French-speaking defendant claimed that he was swept up in the vicinity of the shop, after eating at a nearby fast-food restaurant, for which he has a receipt. Among the other defendants, one man was caught holding a box of sneakers near the burned-out shop before being shot in the leg and head with rubber bullets, losing two teeth in the course of his arrest.

“We’re talking about the peak night of national violence,” said the prosecuting attorney, demanding prison sentences for all the men arrested. “This is about collective and not individual responsibility.”

This is the logic of much of the justice system’s clampdown, as state prosecutors respond to a political mood seeking retribution for last week’s urban violence. Elements of the legal code like the “violent grouping” or “criminal conspiracy” offenses mean prosecutors are armed — indeed, encouraged — to ascribe blanket punishments for an individual’s alleged association with a crime, perhaps just meaning their presence where one has taken place.

“I’m worried about how these sentences are being dished out,” one lawyer responded from the bar. “In a difficult and complicated national crisis like this one, and in the aftermath of the mass panic that was the night of June 29, we’re getting a procedural meting-out of justice, rather than a debate.”

In the hearings this Wednesday, Gaye, a twenty-one-year-old accounting student who often helps out in his mother’s own accounting firm, was among those standing trial. He was arrested just after midnight on July 1 on the streets of Gagny, a town east of Paris. There was no CCTV evidence due to all cameras being destroyed by rioters the night before, but four identical statements from officers attested to a dozen people who set fire to bins and launched fireworks from behind a barricade. The police only caught Gaye, however, who was wearing an athletic cup and gloves.

Gaye testified that although he’d worn the gloves with the intention of shooting fireworks to “scare the police,” he’d changed his mind once on the street and never fired anything. The weekend spent in detention gave him pause to think about how much he regretted what he’d done. “Regret what, since you deny it?” the judge asked, confused.

“Being there,” Gaye said. “I regret being present.”

Even though no officers were injured, the prosecutor noted that Gaye could face a ten-year prison sentence. But with many sentences often decided based on the social profile of defendants, Gaye was one of the lucky ones — described by the prosecutor as not fitting the “classic” portrait of a rioter. In light of his mother’s firm, good relationship with his family, career prospects, and clean criminal record, he got a six-month suspended sentence, with community service.

“He prepared his defense well,” said Nour, from the audience. A law student from Bobigny, she often brings her teenage brothers and sisters to observe trials. “But the kinds of sentences they’re dealing out will only inflame things in the housing projects,” she said. “They’ve understood nothing.”

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