What the attack on Mayor Vincent Jeanbrun and his family could mean for the future of France
Riots in France are not a new nor surprising phenomenon to anyone who has observed French affairs for any significant length of time. They are seasonal occurrences, destructive but expected; like the Mistral that howls down the Rhône valley in winter. Just in the past few years, France has seen the gilets jaunes revolution, the pension reform strikes, the May Day protests, and numerous protests against Covid restrictions that the police turned into harrowing scenes of brutal violence, along with plenty of football riots and one-off manifestations. But to find a precedent for the current protests, one must go back to 2005, when youth from the North African and Sub-Saharan African ghettos outside of Paris carried out a three-week spree of public arson.
The 2005 riots were sparked much in the same way as the current ones. Police arrived at a construction site to investigate a reported break-in and a group of young Africans fled to avoid being questioned. Three of the youths attempted to hide in an electrical substation, where two died of electrocution and a third was seriously burned. The current riots were precipitated by a 17-year-old, Nahel Merzouk, who had led two motorcycle cops on a chase after they tried to pull him over for reckless driving. Traffic had forced him to stop and the two officers came to his window, one with his gun drawn. When the traffic congestion cleared, Merzouk restarted the car and attempted to flee. He was fatally shot at close range in the process. He had been charged with resisting arrest just the previous weekend, the latest of fifteen other criminal incidents in his judicial file, including selling drugs. In both waves of rioting, the precipitating factor was the African youth of the banlieues — the suburbs outside of the major cities which the French working classes have been driven out of and replaced by third-world migrants — suffering the consequences of their own refusal to cooperate peacefully. President Macron’s response to the Merzouk incident was to call it “inexcusable and unforgivable.” Merzouk’s mother took to TikTok to call for “a revolt for my son.” And a revolt is what she got.
The first days of the riots followed a normal pattern, with most expecting that they would blow over after a while with no significant change in the political situation. But last night, the home of the conservative mayor of the Paris suburb of L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Vincent Jeanbrun, was attacked and set on fire by rioters. This escalation could prove significant in reshaping center-right sentiments moving forward. Jeanbrun was tending to mayoral responsibilities at the town hall, but his wife, Melanie Nowak, and their two young daughters aged five and seven were at home asleep during the attack. As his wife attempted to flee with their daughters, the rioters attacked them, breaking her leg and injuring one of the little girls. It was a clear assassination attempt, something that goes beyond the “norms” of French riots. It was also aimed at a leader of the most consequential political faction. Vincent Jeanbrun is not merely a mayor, he is also the spokesman for Les Républicains, the mainstream center-right party of France and the linchpin of the cordon sanitaire that has thus far kept the right-right out of contention for the French Presidency.
In last year’s presidential election, Les Républicains had something of an internal identity crisis over just how strongly they would oppose mass migration and take on the problem of the dysfunctional banlieues and rampant criminality in them. Arch-Conservative Éric Ciotti, leader of the party’s internal À DROITE! (To the Right!) movement, won the first ballot for the Presidential nomination but lost to the more centrist technocrat Valérie Pécresse in the runoff. Pécresse took a stronger stance on migration and the banlieues than expected, even referencing the Great Replacement at one point, but was ultimately seen as a lesser imitation of Macron. She came in a dismal fifth place in the first round of voting (the worst-ever result for Les Républicains and their Gaullist predecessors) and called on her party to support Macron against Le Pen in the runoff. Since then, there have been positive signs that Les Républicains have tired of playing the role of Macron-enablement and are finally moving to the Right. Last December, Ciotti was elected as leader of Les Républicains. As the largest party in the upper-house Senate, Les Républicains control the legislative agenda of the Republic.
The attempted assassination of their party spokesman turns a new page in center-right politics for France, one that threatens the cordon sanitaire that has kept the French Presidency out of the hands of the Right. For the rest of his presidency, Macron will face pressure from an increasingly hardening Right to accommodate policy demands on migration and internal order, or else his legislative agenda will grind to a halt. One can easily envision an alliance coalescing ahead of the next elections that mirror the center-right/hard-right partnerships that have successfully taken power in other European countries. If the center-right allies with the Right populists and nationalists as they have in Sweden and Italy, it could potentially break the political logjam. The next few weeks will determine whether the spirit of the French people will be one of submission, or of defiance.