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

This is part of a long-term 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, more than 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 promised change, many French found meaningful change impossible.

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

Looking back a little further, “The Other France,” a 2015 New York 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 understanding why some mass protest movements struggle to achieve their goals.

My favorite academic book on police reform is “Authoritarian Police in a Democracy,” by Yanilda González, which analyzes why some Latin American countries have overhauled their police forces after major scandals, while others have not.

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

And successful movements often bring sustained economic and political pressure with the 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.

This parallels what happened with the civil rights movement in the United States. In “Racial harmonization,” Eric Schickler shows how the movement built political power over decades, first gaining influence in unions that wanted support from Black workers, and then working with those unions to pressure 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, NY, 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 get my bearings; now I am again immersed in this beautiful prose, and can luxuriate in slow reading. I loved Colonel Aureliano Buendía’s insight that after years of fighting in a long civil war, the liberals (so called) have become no different from the conservatives. He is being asked by the liberals to sign a waiver of many of the goals of the government he fought to protect. He realizes “that all we fight for is power” – that’s what it came down 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 a life beyond the world he knows so well. He sells his sheep and begins a quest to find his “treasure” but encounters both revelations and hard truths on his journey. He meets people completely unlike himself who help him learn about his own strengths and challenges. I both read and listened to this book while on vacation — an audiobook for the disc and a hard copy so I could linger over the prose. This story came at just the right time: One year into a career change I was ruminating on my choices, both the good and the bad of a new position. My prescription was to look for the lessons in all circumstances and to embrace the uncertainty of the unknown, because this can lead to a deeper understanding of what it means to fulfill one’s dreams.


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