President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday urged calm after 150 people were arrested and public buildings were attacked in angry protests over the police killing of a teenager that has incensed France.
Nahel M., 17, was shot in the chest at point-blank range in the Paris suburb of Nanterre on Tuesday in an incident that has reignited debate in France about police tactics long criticised by rights groups.
Cars and bins were torched in parts of Paris and nationwide overnight, and protesters launched fireworks at riot police, who fired flashball projectiles to try to disperse the angry crowds. A tramway was also set alight in a Paris suburb.
“We are sick of being treated like this. This is for Nahel, we are Nahel,” said two young men calling themselves “Avengers” as they wheeled rubbish bins from a nearby estate to add to a burning barricade in the capital.
Branding the overnight clashes “unjustifiable”, Macron told a crisis meeting of ministers that the coming hours and an afternoon march in memory of Nahel in Nanterre should be marked by “contemplation and respect”.
“The last few hours have been marked by scenes of violence against police stations, but also schools and town halls… against institutions and the Republic,” he said.
The violence is a deeply troubling development for Macron who had been looking to move past a half-year of sometimes violent protests that erupted over his controversial pension reform.
The teenager was killed as he pulled away from police who tried to pull him over for traffic infractions.
A video circulating on social media and authenticated by AFP showed two policemen standing by the side of the stationary car, with one pointing a weapon at the driver.
A voice is heard saying: “You are going to get a bullet in the head.”
The police officer then appears to fire as the car abruptly drives off.
Clashes first erupted as the video emerged, contradicting police accounts that the teenager was driving at the officer.
By Wednesday night anger had spread to Toulouse, Dijon and Lyon, as well as several other towns in the Paris region, where around 2,000 riot police had been deployed.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on Twitter as he announced the 150 arrests figure that the violence was “intolerable”.
– ‘Justice for Nahel’ –
In the region around the scene of Nahel M.’s killing, masked demonstrators dressed in black launched fireworks and firecrackers at security forces.
A thick column of smoke billowed above the area where AFP journalists saw more than a dozen cars and garbage cans set ablaze and barriers blocking off roads.
Graffiti sprayed on the walls of one building called for “justice for Nahel” and said, “police kill”.
In the working-class 18th and 19th districts of northeastern Paris, police fired flashballs to disperse protesters burning rubbish, but instead of leaving, the crowd responded by throwing bottles.
In the southern city of Toulouse, several cars were torched and responding police and firefighters pelted with projectiles, a police source said, while authorities reported similar scenes in Dijon and Lyon.
At France’s second-largest prison complex, Fresnes, protesters attacked security at the entrance with fireworks, a police source told AFP.
The town hall of Mons-en-Baroeul outside the northern city of Lille was set on fire when some fifty hooded individuals stormed the building, the mayor told AFP.
– ‘Ingredients for an explosion’ –
France is haunted by the prospect of a repeat of 2005 riots sparked by the death of two boys of African origin during a police chase. Those protests resulted in around 6,000 people arrested.
“There are all the ingredients for another explosion potentially,” one government adviser told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The head of the right-wing Republicans, Eric Ciotti, meanwhile called for a state of emergency, which allows local authorities to create no-go areas, to be declared in all the zones where the riots erupted. A similar measure had been ordered in 2005.
But there has been growing concern over tactics of police, particularly against young men from non-white minorities.
Last year, 13 people were killed after refusing to stop for police traffic checks, with a law change in 2017 that gave officers greater powers to use their weapons now under scrutiny.
“What I see on this video is the execution by police of a 17-year-old kid, in France, in 2023, in broad daylight,” said Greens party leader Marine Tondelier.
But far-right leader Marine Le Pen said the officer was entitled to the “presumption of innocence”.
Darmanin said he had also referred to the judiciary a tweet — now deleted — by a minor police union called France Police and seen as close to the extreme right which celebrated the teen’s death and blamed his parents.