The lost promise of childhood

The state-sanctioned violence committed against children such as Nahel M forces us to revisit the very question of childhood, its privileges, and its roots in the French imperialization of Africa.

Photo by DENIS MALERBI on Unsplash

When French director Mathieu Kassovitz created his magnum opus, La Haine  (Hatred), in 1995, he did so “because kids die.” The film, heralded as a watershed work for cinema of the French banlieues (suburbs), reflects the Parisian periphery, its quotidian, and its ills. In the film, three young men—Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert, who are Jewish, North African, and West African respectively—move through the aftershocks of their friend’s death at the hands of police. Their friend’s name was Abdel Ichaha. In earlier parts of the film, Abdel is still in intensive care; the men later learn of his death when they are spending the night in a shopping mall, during which news of his death glares from the mall’s disturbingly massive televisions. The film crescendos from this point, and the young trio falls into various altercations with skinheads and police until the film’s finale. The movie ends with Vinz being killed by a policeman, after which Hubert enters a standoff against the killing cop. In the final shots, Hubert and the policeman point their guns at each other. Saïd, looking from afar, squeezes his eyes shut. The screen goes black with the sound of a gunshot.

Kassovitz’ film was inspired by the death of Makomé M’Bowolé, a boy of Congolese descent who was shot at point-blank range by French police on April 6, 1993. He was 17. M’Bowolé’s death is often woven into conversations surrounding the 2017 police assault of Théodore Luhaka (also of Congolese origin), the 2016 death of Adama Traoré (of Malian descent), and an inexhaustible list of young, French people whose subjugation to state violence finds throughlines in their racialization, their class status, and the ways in which these two categories coalesce in postcolonial French society.

On June 27, 2023, Nahel Merzouk—a high school student of Algerian-Moroccan descent—was killed by police in the northwest Parisian suburb of Nanterre. Like M’Bowolé exactly 30 years before him, he was 17 years old.

The child is a critical figure in the French imaginary. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tome, Émile, ou de l’Éducation (Émile, Or Treatise on Education), is a central 18th-century exploration into the proper ways to raise a child away from societal perversities. It is still used today to teach the Montessori method. Director François Truffaut famously investigated the socialization of children with his 1970 film L’enfant sauvage (Wild Child). Questions surrounding children and parentage are present in France’s Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), a catalyst text for its 1789 revolution. And a stroll through Paris’ Porte Dorée immigration museum begins with large, art deco murals depicting women with bare chests—mother France nourishes her children. Children, so often emblematic of innocence, purity, and protection, also stand to represent progress, futurity, and our acute, aching need to fix societal misfortune. When global protests for Black lives took place in 2020 (including France), the world saw images of children protesting on the shoulders of their parents, representatives of a futurity that the movement sought to establish—we must do better for children. We must grow, ameliorate gender rights, alleviate hatred, and reverse climate change, all for children. We dream of a world wherein children are exiled from the sociopolitics that harm the marginalized. We must protect our children.

So why do they keep getting killed?

The state-sanctioned violence committed against children such as Nahel forces us to revisit the very question of childhood, its privileges, and its roots in the French imperialization of Africa. It forces us to question who merits the protection of childhood. If the French literature and treatises laid out in an earlier paragraph craft a particularly innocent and idealized image of the child, arts from once-French colonies in Africa, as well as the African diaspora to France, trouble said images. In Cameroonian author Frédéric Oyono’s Une vie de boy (Houseboy), the narrator’s childhood is awash with experiences of French colonial violence—both physical and ideological—in the prison, the street, and the educational system. Moreover, the narrator continues to be a “boy” even as his narrative stretches into older age. Childishness is no longer a condition of protection, but a tool of perpetual subjugation for colonial African persons, even into adulthood. Black French girls of African descent, such as those from Céline Sciamma’s Bande de Filles (Girlhood) or Maïmouna Doucouré’s controversial Mignonnes (Cuties), are subject to educational limitations, hypersexualization, and adultification in the tender days of pre- and peri-pubescent girlhood. The school-aged Black and Arab boys of Ladj Ly’s 2019 Les misérables are subject to a flashbang shooting by a guerilla police force. (Ly’s film is even considered a successor to Kassovitz’s La Haine, emphasizing the unchanging nature of France’s sociourban precarities over 25 years.) And a summer 2020 report from Human Rights Watch exits the realm of fiction, unearthing the fraught relationship between police and citizens in spaces such as the Parisian suburbs. The report shines light on the elevated rates of stop-and-search procedures for Black and Arab boys—mainly of North and West African descent—as young as 10 years old.

These texts and social textures were not born in a vacuum but are instead the result of France’s colonial wounds. Woven into France’s subjugation of Africa was the very reconfiguration of who deserved to be treated as human. To what degree can the human be rendered subhuman for an empire’s economic exploitation, as well as its entertainment in exhibitions such as the Colonial Zoo? When the conditions of African humanity were mercilessly destroyed for perpetuation of the colonial project, it becomes clear that humanity’s most protected category, the human child, must have been undone for colonial subjects as well. And even in the age of a “post”-colony, these destructions show their vestiges. French children of the African diaspora are exposed to violence in all its contours and at heightened rates in comparison to their counterparts of non-African descent. It appears that they do not merit the protection that we so want to offer children, because years of imperialized violence have distorted the notion that they are even children at all.

As I wrote this piece, I sat in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, right on the border of the banlieue. My apartment window ushers in the scent of smoke from the fire and firecrackers in the street. There is screaming, there is cheering, and my screen lights up with endless warnings from French national news and my home university’s “scholar abroad” alerts. In the afternoon, I watched young Black and brown boys riding razor scooters through the streets, dapping each other up, and greeting each other with the famous Franco-Arabicized word, wesh! Their mothers called out to them in Wolof, some in Arabic. I wonder if these boys are now in the street, calling attention to justice for their fallen camarade, Nahel. Similar-looking children are currently going viral on Twitter under the hashtag #ViolencesUrbaines, in videos that depict what is going on outside of my window. Images of these young bodies leading protests or emblazoned on news sites act as foils to the carefree neutrality that is expected of children.

But when societal structures that stem from colonial histories have made it so that Black and brown children of the francophone African diaspora are not promised equitable success (or even life), this exclusion from politics and their stakes feels impossible. It becomes clear that if childhood is understood as a state of universal care and a blissful divestment from sociopolitical plights, Nahel Merzouk—and many who look like him, act like him, or share his cultural background—were somehow undeserving of one. In our global conversations of police violence and brutality is a necessary dialogue on youth, culpability, and the development of children in the shadows of society’s unmitigated racisms and xenophobia. The idea of the child as a universally protected figure requires a critical eye, especially as the dimensions of childhood have been ever-plastic and fluid, molded by colonial histories that empires are nowadays seeking to erase. No society wants to admit that their children are hurting, and this refusal is doubly potent when that hurt stems from hegemonies that were once the reigning paradigm. But the hurt is there. We must admit it. We must lean into it.

Because until we alleviate this even-implicit belief born of imperial hatred, kids will continue to die. Nahel Merzouk did not deserve to die. Nahel Merzouk deserved a future. Nahel Merzouk deserved a childhood.

Further Reading

A History in Fragments

The recent explosions in the Stade de France was one of the most surreal things to ever take place in a stadium built nearly two decades ago specifically to house history.