‘People don’t want mayhem’: How crime boosted France’s far right

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Tom Maiani was behind the wheel of his car every night, all night, for two weeks in July 2023, as youths in French housing estates rioted over the police killing of an unarmed teenager of North African descent near Paris.

The 24-year-old waiter was afraid that rioters in the northeastern town of Mont-Saint-Martin, where nine public buildings were partially or completely destroyed, would torch his car, as they had dozens of others.

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His efforts paid off but there was no turning back for Maiani.

“The riots marked me and bolstered my political choices,” said Maiani, who went from simply voting for the far-right National Rally to becoming the running mate of the party’s candidate for a seat in this weekend’s parliamentary elections.

The shooting dead of Nahel Merzouk during a traffic inspection near Paris in June 2023, one of 15 such killings by the police over 18 months, many involving young people of North African descent, caused simmering resentment over racism in France’s grim housing estates to boil over.

In Mont-Saint-Martin, a primary school and a center for autistic children were destroyed and the Communist-run town hall was ransacked.

The riots, together with a spate of deadly knife fights between teenagers in usually tranquil towns and villages, have made crime and insecurity a burning issue in the upcoming snap elections called by President Emmanuel Macron.

“Young people don’t want mayhem in France,” Maiani explained as he handed out election leaflets at a market near Mont-Saint-Martin last week.

‘Marked for life’

Nationwide, most categories of crime increased last year, police figures showed.

But while foreigners are more likely than French citizens to be accused of harming others, they represented only 17 percent of all suspects in violent attacks in 2023.

A poll commissioned by the right-wing C News channel in early June showed two-thirds of French people nonetheless believed crime and immigration were linked.

The anti-immigration RN of three-time former presidential candidate Marine Le Pen doubled its score in recent European elections in the southeastern village of Crepol, after the fatal stabbing of a 16-year-old rugby player in a fight with youths from a largely immigrant housing estate.

The party’s 28-year-old president Jordan Bardella, who is tipped to become France’s first far-right prime minister, accused teens from the estate at the time of “coming to stab white people”.

He has vowed to make it easier to deport foreigners convicted of crimes and cut benefits for parents of repeat child offenders.

Pierre Didier, a 69-year-old Crepol resident told AFP his grandchildren had been “marked for life” by the attack.

“Before that, my grandson was open-minded, now he’s all for the far right. When he reaches voting age, he’ll choose RN,” he told AFP, blaming “too many people coming” into France for the tensions.

Frederic Weber, a former trade unionist running for a parliamentary seat in the “three borders” area at the confluence of France, Belgium and Luxembourg, blamed a “massive influx of migrants in recent years” for an increase in some crimes in his area.

The number of physical attacks and armed robberies have risen, but murders and vehicle thefts have fallen, police figures show.

Nationwide, however, most categories of crime increased in 2023, driven in part by the expansion of the drug trade into small-town France.

Last year, five people were seriously injured in a shootout between rival gangs in broad daylight in the small town of Villerupt, a 20-minute drive from Mont-Saint-Martin.

“The deterioration of the security situation has fuelled the rise of the Front,” Jerome Fourquet, a director of the Ifop polling company told Le Figaro newspaper, using the RN’s old National Front name, pointing to “a strong demand for protection and for the authorities to bring the situation under control.”

‘It’s too late, Madame’

Said Lounnas, a 53-year-old cafe owner, warned that young people living in social housing in the Val Saint Martin neighborhood, where 40 different nationalities live side-by-side, were running wild.

“They have gained the upper hand over their parents,” he said.

“You have to treat the problem at the root,” the outgoing left-wing MP for the region, Martine Etienne told voters at a market in the town of Longwy near Mont-Saint-Martin, blaming insecurity on Macron’s “social carelessness”.

The New Popular Front leftwing alliance has vowed to invest in community policing and try to calm tensions between the police and immigrant-origin youth by banning the use by riot police of rubber bullets and grenades.

“It’s too late, Madame,” Jacques Bonoris, an 84-year-old retired steelworker, told Etienne.

“On my street, everybody votes RN.”

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