Source: Unsplash

Navigating a foreign city in times of political unrest

On Tuesday 27 June 2023, a 17-year-old North African teenager, named Nahel M, was shot by police during a traffic stop in Nanterre, Paris. In the days that followed the incident, France was shaken with grief, looting and arson. During this time, I was in Paris, studying key figures in French history at La Sorbonne Université d’été. In these summer school classes we discussed political legacies, decolonisation, and national rituals. Leaving the university building to find ‘Justice pour Nahel’ (Justice for Nahel) and ‘La police tue’ (The police kill) spray painted around the city brought weight to the ideas we’d debate.

In the days that followed the incident, France was shaken with grief, looting and arson

After reading about the Paris massacre of 1961, the shooting of Makomé M’Bowolé in 1993 and the electrocution of Bouna Traoré and Zyed Benna in 2005, Paris has a history of police violence. La Haine, a critically acclaimed feature film set in Paris, depicts this well. In the film, a teenager of North African descent is killed by police and we follow three of his friends over twenty hours as they wrestle with their grief and disillusionment. That film was released almost twenty years ago and the similarity in aftermath of Nahel’s death is striking. The week of the killing, from Paris, to Lyon and Marseille, over two thousand fires had been reported on public roads, over one thousand people had been detained and over seven hundred businesses had reported damage.

It is a strange time to be a tourist, when you see grieving families on every national news channel. It forces you to reckon with your own ideas of what makes a city great. I learned about the shooting one day later, in the Parisian suburb of Villejuif. During the night, in this suburb, bins were set on fire, with the debris quietly cleared away by the local council the next morning. Wednesday night was a similar story: shouting, burning and then removal some hours later. Wandering around Paris at that time left me at a crossroads. How to find a balance between keeping updated on an escalating, tragic situation, while safely exploring a new city?

Learn about the source of the unrest before finding responses

Of course, tragedies like this cannot be pre-emptively factored into anyone’s visit to a new place. But going forward, I now feel that if I were to ever find myself in a similar situation, I would keep the following in mind. First of all, learn about the source of the unrest before finding responses. Then understand the legal ramifications such as whether a lockdown has been imposed following the triggering event and which regions are affected. After, revisit your schedule, avoid zones of conflict and check if there are any protests planned on days you are travelling. Finally, the ethical considerations, check in on the people you know there and see if there is a verified fundraiser for the victim(s) and their family.

The verified fundraiser for Nahel’s family can be found here.


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