Last September in Paris, I attended a screening of the Netflix feature Athena, about an apocalyptic insurrection following the videotaped killing of a teenager of North African descent by a group of men dressed as police. The unrest begins within an isolated French hyperghetto and blooms into a nationwide civil war, a dismal progression that no longer seems entirely far-fetched. To log on to social media or turn on the TV in France over the past week was to have been transported into Athena’s world.
Late last month, an officer in the Parisian banlieue of Nanterre shot Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent who was driving illegally, after he accelerated out of a traffic stop. His death has triggered days of violence that have convulsed the country and at times verged on open revolt. Groups of disaffected youth have incinerated cars, buses, trams, and even public libraries and schools. Roving mobs have clashed with armored police; giddy teens have ransacked sneaker and grocery stores; frenzied young men have filmed one another blasting what look to be Kalashnikovs into the sky.