Violent protests broke out in France in the early hours of Thursday as anger grows over the police killing of a teenager, with security forces arresting 150 people in the chaos that saw balaclava-clad protesters burning cars and setting off fireworks.
Nahel M., 17, was shot in the chest at point-blank range on Tuesday morning in an incident that has reignited debate in France about police tactics long criticised by rights groups over the treatment of people in low-income suburbs, particularly ethnic minorities.
The teenager’s mother called for a march on Thursday afternoon in the Paris suburb of Nanterre where he was killed, in tribute to her only child.
In a sign of the seriousness of the situation, President Emmanuel Macron called an early morning crisis meeting of his ministers, the Elysee announced.
There had already been clashes the previous evening and while Wednesday night began calmly, unrest erupted in other French cities, including Toulouse, Dijon and Lyon before violence after midnight hit the Paris region, where around 2,000 riot police had been deployed.
“A night of intolerable violence against symbols of the republic, with town halls, schools and police stations set on fire or attacked,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on Twitter as he announced the 150 arrests figure.
He expressed support for police but added in an apparent swipe at the hard-left: “Shame on those who did not call for calm.”
In the region around Nanterre, 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.
“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.
One said his family had lived in France for three generations but “they are never going to accept us”.
In the Essonne region south of the capital, a group set a bus on fire after forcing all the passengers off, police said, while in Clamart a tram was set on fire.
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.
“They did not enter the prison grounds. The police were quickly called in,” the source added.
The victim was pulled over for breaking traffic rules.
Police initially reported that an officer had shot at the teenager because he was driving at him, but this was contradicted by a video circulating on social media and authenticated by AFP.
The footage shows the 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.
Hoping to tamp down the spreading violence, authorities have pleaded for calm.
On Wednesday, the Nanterre town hall urged an end to the “destructive spiral”, while the government issued rare criticism of the security forces.
“A teenager was killed. That is inexplicable and unforgivable,” President Emmanuel Macron said during an official visit to Marseille, southern France.
France is haunted by the prospect of a repeat of 2005 riots sparked by the death of two black boys 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.
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 said.
But far-right leader Marine Le Pen said the officer was entitled to the “presumption of innocence”.
The 38-year-old policeman filmed firing the lethal shot was taken into custody and is under investigation for voluntary manslaughter.
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