Sporadic Violence, but Calmer Night in France after Family Buries Teenager

REUTERS/Juan Medina
A firefighter uses a fire extinguisher on a burning pile of bottles as people protest following the death of Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer in Nanterre during a traffic stop, and against police violence, in Paris, France, July 1, 2023.

PARIS (Reuters) – Rioting across France appeared to be less intense on Saturday, as tens of thousands of police had been deployed in cities across the country after the funeral of a teenager of North African descent, whose shooting by police sparked nationwide unrest.

President Emmanuel Macron postponed a state visit to Germany that was due to begin on Sunday to handle the worst crisis for his leadership since the “Yellow Vest” protests paralyzed much of France in late 2018.

Some 45,000 police were on the streets with specialized elite units, armored vehicles and helicopters brought in to reinforce its three largest cities, Paris, Lyon and Marseille.

At 0145 (2345 GMT) Sunday morning, the situation was calmer than the previous four nights, although there was some tension in central Paris and sporadic clashes in the Mediterranean cities of Marseille, Nice and the eastern city of Strasbourg.

The biggest flashpoint was in Marseille where police fired tear gas and fought street battles with youths around the city center late into the night.

In Paris, police increased security at the city’s landmark Champs Elysees avenue after a call on social media to gather there. The street, usually packed with tourists, was lined with security forces carrying out spot checks. Shop facades were boarded up to prevent potential damage and pillaging.

The interior ministry said 1,311 people had been arrested on Friday night, compared with 875 the previous night, although it described the violence as “lower in intensity.” Police said almost 200 people had been arrested nationwide on Saturday.

Local authorities all over the country announced bans on demonstrations, ordered public transport to stop running in the evening and some imposed overnight curfews.

The unrest, a blow to France’s global image just a year from holding the Olympic Games, will add political pressure on Macron.

He had already faced months of anger and sometimes violent demonstrations across the country after pushing through a pension overhaul.

Postponement of the state visit to Germany is the second time this year he has had to cancel a high-level event because of the domestic situation in France. In March, he canceled King Charles’s planned state visit.


Nahel, a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan parents, was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop on Tuesday in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

For the funeral, several hundred people lined up to enter Nanterre’s grand mosque. Volunteers in yellow vests stood guard, while a few dozen bystanders watched from across the street.

Some of the mourners, their arms crossed, said “God is Greatest” in Arabic, as they spanned the boulevard in prayer.

Marie, 60, said she had lived in Nanterre for 50 years and there had always been problems with the police.

“This absolutely needs to stop. The government is completely disconnected from our reality,” she said.

The shooting of the teenager, caught on video, has reignited longstanding complaints by poor and racially mixed urban communities of police violence and racism.

Nahel was known to police for previously failing to comply with traffic stop orders and was illegally driving a rental car, the Nanterre prosecutor said on Thursday.

Macron has denied there is systemic racism in French law enforcement agencies.

There is also a broader anger in the country’s poorest suburbs, where inequalities and crime are rife and French leaders have failed for decades to tackle what some politicians have called a “geographical, social and ethnic apartheid.”


Rioters have torched 2,000 vehicles since the start of the unrest. More than 200 police officers have been injured, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Saturday, adding that the average age of those arrested was 17.

Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti said 30% of detainees were under 18.

More than 700 shops, supermarkets, restaurants and bank branches had been “ransacked, looted and sometimes even burnt to the ground since Tuesday,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said.

In Marseille, where 80 people had been arrested on Friday, police said they had detained 60 people.

“It’s very scary. We can hear a helicopter and are just not going out because it’s very worrying,” said Tatiana, 79, a pensioner who lives in the city center.

In Lyon, France’s third largest city, police deployed armored personnel carriers and a helicopter.

The unrest has revived memories of nationwide riots in 2005 that lasted three weeks and forced then President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency, after the death of two young men electrocuted in a power substation as they hid from police.

Players from the national soccer team issued a rare statement calling for calm. “Violence must stop to leave way for mourning, dialog and reconstruction,” they said on star Kylian Mbappe’s Instagram account.

The South Winners supporters group, an influential fan group for Olympique de Marseille, called on the city’s youth to “be wise and show restraint.”

“By acting in this way you are dirtying Nahel’s memory and are also dividing our city.”

Events including two concerts at the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris were canceled, while LVMH-owned LVMH.PA fashion house Celine canceled its 2024 menswear show on Sunday, creative director Hedi Slimane said on Instagram.

With the government urging social media companies to remove inflammatory material, Darmanin met officials from Meta, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. Snapchat said it had zero tolerance for content that promoted violence.

The policeman whom prosecutors say acknowledged firing a lethal shot at Nahel is in preventive custody under formal investigation for voluntary homicide, equivalent to being charged under Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions.

His lawyer, Laurent-Franck Lienard, said his client had aimed at the driver’s leg but was bumped when the car took off, causing him to shoot towards his chest. “Obviously (the officer) didn’t want to kill the driver,” Lienard said on BFM TV.