Police officer faces voluntary homicidal charges
France’s government vowed to restore order on Thursday after two nights of urban violence triggered by the deadly police shooting of a 17-year-old, announcing it would deploy tens of thousands more officers and crack down on neighbourhoods where buildings and vehicles were torched.
Ministers fanned out to areas scarred by the sudden flare-up of rioting, appealing for calm but also warning that the violence that injured scores of police and damaged nearly 100 public buildings wouldn’t be allowed to continue.
After a morning crisis meeting, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said policing will be more than quadrupled — from 9,000 officers to 40,000. In the Paris region alone, the number of officers deployed will more than double 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.” The police officer who fired the fatal shot in the Paris suburb of Nanterre will be investigated for voluntary homicide after an initial investigation led local prosecutor Pascal Prache to conclude that “the conditions for the legal use of the weapon were not met.”
The killing of the teen, identified only by his first name, Nahel, came during a traffic stop Tuesday. The incident captured on video shocked the country and stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people in housing projects and other disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Despite a beefed-up police presence Wednesday night, violence resumed after dusk 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 numerous 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 spokesperson for the national police.
Fire damaged the town hall in the 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. At least 90 public buildings were vandalised.
The number of civilians injured was not immediately released. 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 ran a red light to avoid being stopped but then got stuck in a traffic jam. 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.
Prache requested the officer be held in custody — a decision to be made by a magistrate.
Two magistrates have been named to lead the investigation, Prache said. Under the French legal system, which differs from the US and British systems, magistrates often lead investigations.
Nahel’s surname has not been released by authorities or by his family. In earlier statements, lawyers for the family spelled the name Nael.
In a separate case, a police officer who fatally shot a 19-year-old Guinean man in western France has preliminarily been charged with voluntary homicide, the local prosecutor said Wednesday. The man was fatally shot by an officer as he allegedly tried to flee a traffic stop. The investigation is still ongoing.
Scenes of violence in France’s suburbs echo 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.
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 the 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.
Bouquets of orange and yellow roses now mark the site of the shooting, on Nanterre’s Nelson Mandela Square.
French activists renewed calls to tackle what they see as systemic police abuse, particularly in neighbourhoods like the one where Nahel lived, where many residents struggle with poverty and racial or class discrimination. Government officials condemned the killing and sought to distance themselves from the police officer’s actions.
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.
The driver died at the scene, the prosecutor’s office said.
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.
French soccer star Kylian Mbappe, who grew up in the Paris suburb of Bondy, was among many shocked by what happened.
“I hurt for my France,” he tweeted.