Ian R Brodie with Reuters
UPDATED, Friday, June 30, 06:30: President Emmanuel Macron fought to contain a mounting crisis on Thursday as unrest erupted for a third day over the deadly police shooting of a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent during a traffic stop in a Paris suburb.
Forty thousand police officers were to deploy across France — nearly four times the numbers mobilised on Wednesday — but there were few signs that government appeals to a de-escalation in the violence would quell the widespread anger.
By the end of the night an entire shopping centre had been burned to the ground and 400 protesters arrested. Rioting spread into Belgium overnight and French police expect the trouble to continue and even escalate over the weekend.
The accused policeman’s lawyer told BFMTV late on Thursday: “The first words he pronounced were to say sorry and the last words he said were to say sorry to the family,” Laurent-Franck Lienard told BFMTV. “He is devastated, he doesn’t get up in the morning to kill people.”
In Nanterre, the working class town on the western outskirts of Paris where 17-year-old Nahel M. was shot dead on Tuesday, protesters torched cars, barricaded streets and hurled projectiles at police following a peaceful vigil.
Before dark on Thursday, a flaming projectile was hurled into a branch of Credit Muteul bank in Nanterre, setting the bank ablaze and endangering the occupants of apartments above the bank. Firemen reached the building under police protection.
Local authorities in Clamart, 8 km (5 miles) from central Paris, imposed a nighttime curfew until Monday.
Screenshot from BFMTV: A burnt-out tram in Paris following riots
Valerie Pecresse, who heads the greater Paris region, said all bus and tram services would be halted after 21:00 after some were set alight the previous night.
Macron’s government dismissed calls from some political opponents for a state of emergency to be declared, but towns and cities nationwide were bracing for further rioting.
“The response of the state must be extremely firm,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said, speaking from the northern town of Mons-en-Baroeul where several municipal buildings were set alight.
The incident has fed longstanding complaints of police violence and systemic racism inside law enforcement agencies from rights groups and within the low-income, racially mixed suburbs that ring major cities in France.
The local prosecutor said the officer involved had been put under formal investigation for voluntary homicide and would be held in prison in preventive detention.
Under France’s legal system, being placed under formal investigation is akin to being charged in Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions.
“The public prosecutor considers that the legal conditions for using the weapon have not been met,” Pascal Prache, the prosecutor, told a news conference.
The teenager was shot during Tuesday’s morning rush hour. He initially failed to stop after the Mercedes AMG he was driving was spotted in a bus lane. Two police officers caught up with the car in a traffic jam.
When the car made to get away, one officer fired at close range through the driver’s window. Nahel died from a single shot through his left arm and chest, Nanterre public prosecutor Pascal Prache said.
The officer has acknowledged firing a lethal shot, the prosecutor said, telling investigators he wanted to prevent a car chase, fearing he or another person would be hurt after the teenager committed several traffic violations.
He was at the wheel of a Mercedes and at 17 was too young to drive unaccompanied. He had run three red lights, the police claimed.
Nahel was known to police for previously failing to comply with traffic stop orders, Prache said.
The youngster had run up a string of offences, mainly driving-related, but the justice system had not caught up with him and at the time of his death he had a clean criminal record.
In an effort to calm the situation, Macron on Wednesday said the shooting was unforgivable. As he convened an emergency meeting he also condemned the unrest.
At a march in Nanterre in memory of Nahel, participants railed against what they perceived as a culture of police impunity and a failure to reform law enforcement in a country that has experienced waves of rioting and protests over police conduct.
“We demand that the judiciary does its job, otherwise we’ll do it our way,” a neighbour of Nahel’s family told Reuters at the march.
Thousands thronged the streets. Riding atop a flatbed lorry, the teenager’s mother waved to the crowd wearing a white T-shirt reading “Justice for Nahel” and the date of his death.
The unrest has revived memories of riots in 2005 that convulsed France for three weeks and forced then-president Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency.
That wave of violence erupted in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois and spread across the country following the death of two young people electrocuted in a power substation as they hid from police.
Two officers were acquitted in a trial ten years later.
Tuesday’s killing was the third fatal shooting during traffic stops in France so far in 2023, down from a record 13 last year, a spokesperson for the national police said.
There were three such killings in 2021 and two in 2020, according to a Reuters tally, which shows the majority of victims since 2017 were Black or of Arab origin.
Karima Khartim, a local councillor in Blanc Mesnil north east of Paris, said people’s patience was running thin.
“We’ve experienced this injustice many times before,” she said.
(Reuters reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten, Layli Foroudi, Noemie Olive and Michel Rose)
Top, Burning vehicles are seen in a street amid clashes between protesters and police during a march in tribute to Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer during a traffic stop, in Nanterre, Paris suburb, France, June 29, 2023. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier