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NY Post
New York Post
8 Jul 2023


NextImg:French military commander recalls chaos of recent riots

Henri, 48, is a group commander in the Gendarmerie Air Forces for the Ile-de-France region, having served in the military branch since 2005. His country was rocked by riots in the wake of the June 27 police shooting of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old Muslim delivery driver, in the Paris suburb of Nanterre; in the following days, 45,000 police and gendarmes were deployed to contain the ensuing violence and looting, resulting in over 3,600 arrests nationwide. Henri told The Post about his experiences managing the chaos, and his hope for the country’s future. 

From the start of the riots, we could have expected them to last at least a week. But while the security situation was brought under control in five days, the malaise ran deep. 

The rioters [were] attacking their own living environment, their own banks, shops and restaurants, such as the many McDonald’s, which are one of the few sources of employment in the suburbs. 

We can easily understand the opposition between rioters and the forces of law and order, which is legitimate, but why [were they attacking] ambulance drivers and firemen…who are trying to save them?

Henri, 48, is a group commander in the Gendarmerie Air Forces for the Ile-de-France region
Coutesy Henri

The Nanterre affair is just an accelerant. There are political solutions and social issues at stake. 

There is a growing feeling of violence towards elected representatives, despite the fact that they are one of the last interfaces of authority with their fellow citizens. These days, no-one hesitates to attack them for the slightest disagreement, which is unacceptable because they are deeply committed to serving their fellow citizens.

It’s a shocking, disconcerting breaking point. 

Demonstrators run as French police officers use tear gas in Paris.
Henri was shocked by some of the rioters targets, such as ambulance drivers and firemen.
AFP via Getty Images

A police officer chasing rioters at Champs Elysees in Paris on July 1, 2023.

A police officer chasing rioters at Champs Elysees in Paris on July 1, 2023.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce

We all remember the 2005 riots [in the suburbs] following a pursuit of two young people who had been electrocuted, where the violence lasted several weeks. The causes are the same.

My only fear was for the forces of law and order in contact with the riots on the ground. From the outset, I felt that we needed to support them. 

I’m approaching the situation as an aeronautical professional, and the constraint is how to keep the situation under control so that the crews can operate safely. It’s on missions like this that the State and the French people expect us to be ready to last, to organize the service, to know that we can hold out without interruption. 

For my part, I’ve already received threats from rioters because they recognized me in the media. They see me as a danger…so I’ve been the target of a number of attacks on social networks.

Rioters clash with police forces in Nanterre outside of Paris on June 29, 2023.

Rioters clash with police forces in Nanterre outside of Paris on June 29, 2023.
AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File

Henri, 48, a commander of the Gendarmerie Air Force for the Ile de France region, in front of a helicopter

Henri says he’s received threats from rioters on social media for his work helping to crack down on the looting and chaos.
Coutesy Henri

The Minister of the Interior has estimated that there were 8,000 to 12,000 rioters in the whole of France, which means there are 67 million people who did not break anything and who are suffering the consequences of the rioters’ actions.

Nothing is ever irreparable, as long as goodwill is shared. We live in a magnificent country with extraordinary social cover, and we can all see that beyond individualistic reasons, there is something magnificent to be preserved.

I hope I’m not being too optimistic.