French rioters undermine valid calls for justice

As mobs target schools, creches and cultural centres, they steal attention from the need for clarity over 17-year-old Nahel M's death and a radical overhaul of policing

French riot police pictured during a fifth day of unrest following the death of a teenager killed by a police officer in Nanterre during a traffic stop last week. Reuters
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As France burned in furious response to the fatal shooting by police of a French-Algerian teenager during a banal roadside stop, it was clear that the name Nahel M had become a symbol of a society at breaking point.

An apology from the prison cell by the officer who killed the 17-year-old in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, and now faces a voluntary homicide charge, did nothing to ease tensions.

Despite the authorities flooding the streets with 45,000 officers, mobs attacked police, looted shops and set fire to cars, buses and businesses in the capital as well as in cities and towns across the country.

Curfews were imposed, armoured vehicles deployed and public transport services curtailed amid calls for a state of emergency to be declared.

Thousands marched in Nanterre in solidarity with Nahel and there were familiar chants of “no justice, no peace” before Molotov cocktails and fireworks replaced peaceful protest on successive nights of unrest.

Such is the scale and indiscriminate savagery of the violence that it undermines two valid causes: justice for Nahel and calls for a radical overhaul of French policing, especially in impoverished, crime-ridden banlieues with their large, disaffected populations of Maghrebi and sub-Saharan origins.

The country’s fiercest rioting for 18 years is France’s version of the lawlessness seen in the US following such incidents as the police killings of George Floyd (2020) and Daunte Wright (2021) in Minnesota. France’s nationwide wave of violence in 2005 was provoked by a similar event: the deaths of two teenagers with Tunisian and Mauritanian roots in Clichy-sous-Bois, 30km from Nanterre. Both were electrocuted after fleeing into an electricity substation while being pursued by police.

The alarming spread of disturbances – 1,300 arrests on one night alone, hundreds of police and gendarmes injured, and countless buildings destroyed – demonstrates the depth of the crisis. Police are seen by many black and Arab youths as trigger-happy agents of racist repression.

In important ways, Nahel has already won justice for the needless end to his short life in broad daylight last Tuesday. The 38-year-old officer who killed him was immediately arrested and quickly charged. There were significant shifts in official attitudes compared with previous cases.

Initially, police aggravated a volatile situation by suggesting the teenager was shot because the two officers who stopped him feared he would run them over in the Mercedes he was driving.

But the incident was captured on video. The short clip, now viewed by millions, clearly shows the officers at the side window of the stationary car. Then there is a gunshot as the car moves off before crashing. No drugs or other incriminating material were found. One young passenger was arrested, and another fled the scene.

Nahel, who had no criminal record but a pending court appearance, is said by prosecutors to have been known for failing to stop for police.

But the political reaction was overwhelmingly unforgiving. Gone were routine attempts to justify or minimise police actions, as has happened with previous shootings and when ministers falsely blamed Liverpool supporters for dangerous, chaotic scenes around the Stade de France before last year’s European Champions League final against Real Madrid.

Gerald Darmanin, the hardline Interior Minister who staunchly supports firm law enforcement, said he was extremely shocked. Members of Parliament stood for a minute’s silence and President Emmanuel Macron moved swiftly – too swiftly, according to police unions and right-wing leaders – to express solidarity with Nahel’s family, describing the killing as “inexplicable and inexcusable”.

Even Kylian Mbappe, the star French footballer with parental origins in Algeria and Cameroon, had his say. “I’m hurting for my France,” he tweeted. Nahel was an “little angel taken far too soon”. By the weekend, the player was leading the French national squad in calling for calm.

Political reaction was overwhelmingly unforgiving. Gone were routine attempts to justify or minimise police actions, as has happened with previous shootings

Flawed angel or baby-faced tearaway, Nahel came from a loving home, even though he reportedly never knew his father. He played rugby league, took part in a community youth programme and found work delivering takeaways. Before leading a protest rally in Nanterre, arm raised atop a van and wearing a white T-shirt bearing a slogan demanding justice, his distraught mother, Mounia, said: “He was my life, my best friend.” Later, she insisted she did not blame police generally, just the officer who “saw an Arab face, just a little kid, and wanted to take his life”.

At the very least, the shooting of Nahel seems cruelly disproportionate to the actions he was suspected of. “The death penalty no longer exists in France,” said the far-left France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, and for once he was not being melodramatic.

From Nanterre to Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux and smaller towns with little history of tension, riots duly erupted.

There were strong condemnations of “intolerable” violence fuelled by social media users keen to incite turmoil. Mr Macron urged parents to keep the participants – often as young as 12 or 13 – at home.

But for rioters, there was a misplaced sense of legitimate revenge even as they targeted schools, creches, cultural centres and blameless shopkeepers.

This plays directly into the hands of France’s growing far right, always already to exploit anti-immigrant sentiment and feelings of insecurity. Social media has also seen a stream of racist, Islamophobic comments and even attacks on Nahel’s mother for her demeanour at the protest. One fringe police union posted a grotesque tweet – later deleted – declaring “bravo to our colleagues who opened fire on a young criminal”.

So many questions arise. Why would an experienced officer with an unblemished record jeopardise his career and freedom – and the security of his country – by apparently acting so recklessly? Is French policing, often criticised for gross heavy-handedness during demonstrations, institutionally racist?

Officers complain they are under-rewarded, undervalued and stretched to exhaustion. Their work is tough, danger ever present. Unions say 7,000 resigned in 2022, driven to despair by “total discouragement”. Suicides are not rare.

Sebastian Roche, an author who writes extensively on police and young people, says that unlike in Britain, where police “inspire confidence”, and Germany, where the aim is to be seen as “friends”, the French model is a “police force that causes fear”.

Citing 16 cases of fatal shootings by police in 2022, compared with only one in Germany, he told the newspaper Nice-Matin: “These confrontations are not going to destroy national unity, but they have a corrosive effect. There are not the elements of civil war. But, in my book [The Unfinished Nation], I showed how people now believe less in a common destiny.”

Nahel was buried on Saturday. The accused officer says he is “devastated” by the boy’s death. Saturday night was slightly calmer, but no one can tell when – or how – the rioting will subside. In 2005, trouble lasted for three weeks, led to injuries and cost $222 million.

Perhaps more important is whether France can see past its disgust at the revolt and get to grips with forces of law and order that may not be out of control, but are seen as potential armed enemies of the poorest people in the land.

Published: July 02, 2023, 2:00 PM
Updated: July 05, 2023, 10:20 AM