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NANTERRE, France – France saw unrest spread to major cities in a third night of riots on Thursday, June 29, as President Emmanuel Macron fought to contain a mounting crisis triggered by the deadly police shooting of a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan descent during a traffic stop.
Forty thousand police officers were deployed across France – nearly four times the numbers mobilized on Wednesday, June 28 – but there were few signs that government appeals to de-escalate the violence would quell the widespread anger.
In Nanterre, the working-class town on the western outskirts of Paris where 17-year-old Nahel M. was shot dead on Tuesday, June 27, protesters torched cars, barricaded streets and hurled projectiles at police following a peaceful vigil.
Protesters scrawled “Vengeance for Nahel” across buildings and as night set a bank was lit on fire before firefighters put it out and an elite police unit deployed an armored vehicle.
In central Paris, a Nike shoe store was broken into, and 14 people were arrested and 16 more were arrested with stolen objects after store windows were smashed along the rue de Rivoli shopping street, Paris police said.
National police said on Thursday night that officers faced new incidents in Marseille, Lyon, Pau, Toulouse, and Lille, including fires and fireworks.
Videos on social media showed numerous fires across the country, including at a bus depot in a suburb north of Paris and a tram in the eastern city of Lyon.
In Marseille, France’s second city, police fired tear gas grenades during clashes with youths in the tourist hot-spot of Le Vieux Port, the city’s main paper La Provence reported.
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 around major cities in France.
The local prosecutor said the officer involved had been put under formal investigation over 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 tried 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 allegedly committed several traffic violations.
The officer’s lawyer, Laurent-Franck Lienard, said his client had asked for the victim’s family to forgive him. He said the officer had aimed down towards the driver’s leg but was bumped, causing him to shoot towards his chest.
“He had to be stopped, but obviously (the officer) didn’t want to kill the driver,” Lienard said on BFM TV, adding that his client’s detention was being used to try to calm rioters.
Nahel was known to police for previously failing to comply with traffic stop orders, Prache said.
Macron on Wednesday said the shooting was unforgivable. As he convened his 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.
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.
“I have nothing against the police. I have something against one person, he who killed my son. He did not have to kill my son,” Nahel’s mother told France 5 television after the march.
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 10 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 Khatim, 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. – Rappler.com