France Mobilizes Tens of Thousands of Police to Head off Unrest after Police Fatally Shot a Teenager

AP Photo/Christophe Ena
Police forces clash with youths in Nanterre, outside Paris, Thursday, June 29, 2023.

NANTERRE, France (AP) — France mobilized tens of thousands of police officers Thursday in an effort to head off widespread urban rioting following the deadly police shooting of a 17-year-old that shocked the nation, with commuters rushing home before transport services closed early to avoid being targeted by rioters.

Protesters in some cities set fires in the streets as the night progressed.

The police officer accused of pulling the trigger Tuesday was handed a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide after prosecutor Pascal Prache said his initial investigation led him to conclude “the conditions for the legal use of the weapon were not met.”

The detained police officer’s lawyer, speaking on French TV channel BFM-TV, said the officer was sorry and “devastated.” The officer did what he thought was necessary in the moment, attorney Laurent-Franck Lienard told the news outlet.

“He doesn’t get up in the morning to kill people,” Lienard said of the officer, whose name ha not been released. “He really didn’t want to kill. But now he must defend himself, as he’s the one who’s detained and sleeping in prison.”

Despite government appeals for calm and vows that order would be restored, smoke billowed from cars and garbage set ablaze in the Paris suburb of Nanterre following a peaceful afternoon march in honor of the teen identified only by his first name, Nahel.

After a morning crisis meeting following violence that injured dozens of police and damaged nearly 100 public buildings, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the number of officers in the streets would more than quadruple, from 9,000 to 40,000. In the Paris region alone, the number of officers deployed was more than doubled to 5,000.

“The professionals of disorder must go home,” Darmanin said. While there’s no need yet to declare a state of emergency — a measure taken to quell weeks of rioting in 2005 — he added: “The state’s response will be extremely firm.”

There were 100 arrests nationwide Thursday night, according to a national police spokesperson, as officials reported scattered clashes in cities across the country despite the stepped-up deployments.

In the usually tranquil Pyrenees town of Pau in southwestern France, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a new police office, national police said. Vehicles were set on fire in Toulouse and a tramway train was torched in a suburb of Lyon, police said. Paris police said its officers made 40 arrests Thursday, some on the margins of the largely peaceful memorial march for the teen and others elsewhere.

The interior minister had reported 180 arrests nationwide before Thursday.

Bus and tram services in the Paris area shut down before sunset as a precaution to safeguard transportation workers and passengers.

The town of Clamart, home to 54,000 people in the French capital’s southwest suburbs, said it was taking the extraordinary step of imposing an overnight curfew from Thursday through Monday, citing “the risk of new public order disturbances.” The mayor of Neuilly-sur-Marne announced a similar curfew in that town in the eastern suburbs.

Marseille, the giant port city in the south of France, saw the beginnings of unrest Thursday evening, with several hundred young people roaming the city center and setting fire to trash containers, including in front of the region’s main administrative building, police said. Around 1 a.m. local time, regional officials tweeted that police were trying to disperse violent groups in the city center. Police said they had made 28 arrests, though they gave no time frame.

The unrest extended even to Brussels, where about a dozen people were detained during scuffles related to the shooting in France. Police spokeswoman Ilse Van de Keere said that several fires were brought under control and that at least one car was burned.

The shooting captured on video shocked the country and stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people in housing projects and other disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The teenager’s family and their lawyers haven’t said the police shooting was race-related and they didn’t release his surname or details about him.

Still, his death inflamed raw nerves in neighborhoods that have welcomed generations of immigrants from France’s former colonies and elsewhere. Their France-born children frequently complain they are subjected to police ID checks and harassment far more frequently than white people or those in more affluent neighborhoods.

Anti-racism activists renewed their complaints about police behavior.

“We have to go beyond saying that things need to calm down,” said Dominique Sopo, head of the campaign group SOS Racisme. “The issue here is how do we make it so that we have a police force that when they see Blacks and Arabs, don’t tend to shout at them, use racist terms against them and in some cases, shoot them in the head.”

Prache, the Nanterre prosecutor, said officers tried to stop Nahel because he looked so young and was driving a Mercedes with Polish license plates in a bus lane. He allegedly ran a red light to avoid being stopped then got stuck in traffic. Both officers involved said they drew their guns to prevent him from fleeing.

The officer who fired a single shot said he feared he and his colleague or someone else could be hit by the car, according to Prache. The officers said they felt “threatened” as the car drove off.

He said two magistrates are leading the investigation, as is common in France. Preliminary charges mean investigating judges strongly suspect wrongdoing but need to investigate more before sending the case to trial.

On Wednesday night, violence raged in the streets for a second night, with protesters shooting fireworks and hurling stones at police in Nanterre, who fired repeated volleys of tear gas.

As demonstrations spread to other towns, police and firefighters struggled to contain protesters and extinguish blazes. Schools, police stations, town halls and other public buildings were damaged from Toulouse in the south to Lille in the north, with most of the damage in the Paris suburbs, according to a national police spokesperson.

Fire damaged the town hall in the Paris suburb of L’Ile-Saint-Denis, not far from the country’s national stadium and the headquarters of the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Darmanin said 170 officers had been injured in the unrest but none of the injuries was life-threatening. The number of civilians injured was not immediately released.

The scenes in France’s suburbs echoed 2005, when the deaths of 15-year-old Bouna Traoré and 17-year-old Zyed Benna led to three weeks of nationwide riots, exposing anger and resentment in neglected, crime-ridden suburban housing projects. The two boys were electrocuted after hiding from police in a power substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.

The violence this time spread faster than in 2005, although it hasn’t matched the nationwide scale and sustained intensity of those riots. There were contradicting accounts about what happened to the two teens in 2005, while the video of Nahel’s shooting immediately galvanized anger. Social media that didn’t exist two decades ago has also amplified unrest this time.

French President Emmanuel Macron held an emergency security meeting Thursday about the violence.

“These acts are totally unjustifiable,” Macron said at the beginning of the meeting, which aimed at securing hot spots and planning for the coming days “so full peace can return.”

Macron also said it was time for “remembrance and respect” as Nahel’s mother called for a silent march Thursday that drew a large crowd to Nelson Mandela Square, where he was killed.

Some marchers had “Justice for Nahel” printed on the front of their T-shirts. “The police kill” read one marcher’s placard.

“I’m afraid of what might come next,” said marcher Amira Taoubas, a mother of four boys, the eldest aged 11. “I’d like it to stop and that it never happens again. It’s just not possible to die like this, for no reason. I wouldn’t want it to happen to my own children.”

Bouquets of orange and yellow roses marked the site of the shooting.

Videos of the shooting shared online show two police officers leaning into the driver-side window of a yellow car before the vehicle pulls away as one officer fires into the window. The videos show the car later crashed into a post nearby.

Deadly use of firearms is less common in France than in the United States, though several people have died or sustained injuries at the hands of French police in recent years, prompting demands for more accountability. France also saw protests against racial profiling and other injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minnesota.

A police spokesperson said 13 people who didn’t comply with traffic stops were fatally shot by police last year. This year, three people, including Nahel, have died in similar circumstances.