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What to Read to Understand the Unrest in France

Severe unrest has roiled France in recent weeks, with riots in multiple cities after a police officer fatally shot Nahel Merzouk, a French teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent, in a suburb of Paris.

This is part of a longstanding pattern, my Times colleagues Catherine Porter and Constant Méheut report. “Calls to overhaul the police go back at least four decades to when thousands of young people of color marched for months in 1983 from Marseille to Paris, over 400 miles, after an officer shot a young community leader of Algerian descent,” they wrote.

Since then, there have been multiple cycles of police violence and riots. And although many politicians have promised change, many French people have found meaningful change to be elusive.

As always, Times coverage is the best way to understand the news. Here is an explainer on the recent unrest, and here is a story that delves into why so many people in France identified with the young man who was shot.

Looking a little further back, “The Other France,” a 2015 New Yorker story by George Packer, offers a useful window into the long history of marginalization of poor minority areas, with a cascade of social consequences that go far beyond crime and violence.

But it can be useful to take a more global approach to understand why some mass protest movements struggle to achieve their goals.

My favorite academic book on police reform is “Authoritarian Police in Democracy,” by Yanilda González, which analyzes why some Latin American countries overhauled their police forces in the wake of major scandals, while others didn’t.

She found that because the police tended to be politically powerful, scandals of police violence weren’t enough, on their own, to spur change. There also needed to be broad public demands for it, and strong opposition politicians with an incentive to push for it. Although her book focuses on Latin America, I always find it a useful reminder that protests are just one form of political pressure, and often need to be combined with others to make a difference.

And successful movements often bring sustained economic and political pressure to bear alongside public protests. In “Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Transitions in South Africa and El Salvador,” Elisabeth Wood looked at how the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa used strikes and labor organizing to put economic pressure on the Afrikaner economic elite, who then demanded change from those who held political power.

That parallels what happened with the civil rights movement in the United States. In “Racial Realignment,” Eric Schickler shows how the movement built political power for decades, first by winning influence in labor unions that wanted support from Black workers, and then by working with those unions to put pressure on the Democratic Party to embrace civil rights. Public marches and protests were the most visible part of that process, but they were by no means the most influential.

Kim Fader, a reader in Rockland County, N.Y., recommends “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez:

This is my third reading (the English version, translated by Gregory Rabassa). The first reading (or two) I had to pay attention to getting my bearings; now I am immersed yet again in this gorgeous prose, and can luxuriate in a slow reading. I loved Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s realization that after years of battle in a long civil war, the Liberals (so named) had become no different from the Conservatives. He is asked by the Liberals to sign a renunciation of many of the aims of the government he was fighting to protect. He realizes, “that all we’re fighting for is power” — this is what it has come to. Hmmm. Sounds familiar.

Laura Myers, a reader in Athens, Ohio, recommends “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho:

“The Alchemist” tells the story of a young shepherd who dreams of life beyond the world he knows so well. He sells his sheep and embarks on a quest to find his “treasure” but encounters both revelations and hard truths on his journey. He encounters people quite unlike himself who help him learn about his own strengths and challenges. I both read and listened to this book during vacation — an audiobook for the drive and hard copy so I might linger over the prose. This story came at just the right time: One year into a career change I have been ruminating about my choices, both the good and bad of a new position. My takeaway was to look for the lessons in all circumstances and to embrace the uncertainty of the unfamiliar, as this may lead to deeper understanding of what it means to fulfill one’s dreams.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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