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France deploys 45,000 officers for fifth night of urban violence

Police officers patrol on the Champs Elysees in Paris, Saturday, July 1, 2023.
Police officers patrol on the Champs Elysees in Paris, Saturday, July 1, 2023. Copyright Christophe Ena/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Christophe Ena/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Euronews with AP
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Some 2,800 people have been arrested since 17-year-old Nahel was shot by an officer on Tuesday. The incident has stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people who struggle with poverty, unemployment and racial discrimination.

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Hushed and visibly anguished, hundreds of mourners from France’s Islamic community formed a solemn procession from a mosque to a hillside cemetery on Saturday to bury a teenager whose killing by police has triggered days of rioting and looting across the nation.

Underscoring the gravity of the crisis, President Emmanuel Macron scrapped an official trip to Germany after nights of unrest across France.

The government deployed 45,000 police to city streets across the nation to head off a fifth night of violence. Overnight, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin tweeted the night had been calmer than previous ones, thanks to “the resolute action of security forces". He put the night's arrest toll at 427.

Darmanin tweeted late Saturday that 200 riot police had been mobilised in the port city of Marseille, where TV stations showed footage of police using tear gas as night fell.

AP Photo
Police officers patrol on the Champs Elysees in Paris, Saturday, July 1, 2023.AP Photo

Near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, hundreds of police with batons and shields stood restlessly along the Champs-Elysées, several in front of the shuttered Cartier boutique. Posts on social media had called for protests on the grand boulevard but the police presence appeared to discourage any large gatherings.

Earlier in the day at a hilltop cemetery in Nanterre, the Paris suburb where the teen identified only as Nahel was killed, hundreds stood along the road to pay tribute as mourners carried his white casket from a mosque to the burial site. Journalists were barred from the ceremony and in some cases even chased away. Some of the men carried folded prayer rugs.

“Men first,” an official told dozens of women waiting to enter the cemetery. But Nahel’s mother, dressed in white, walked inside to applause and headed toward the grave. Many of the men were young and Arab or Black, coming to mourn a boy who could have been them.

Inside the cemetery gate, the casket was lifted above the crowd and carried toward the grave. The men followed, some holding little boys by the hand. As they left, some wiped their eyes. Police were nowhere to be seen.

The unrest has been taking a toll on Macron's diplomatic profile. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier's office said Macron phoned Saturday to request a postponement of what would have been the first state visit by a French president to Germany in 23 years. 

AP Photo
Riot police stand near a burning car in the La Meinau neighborhood of Strasbourg, eastern France, on Friday, June 30, 2023.AP Photo

Macron’s office said he spoke with Steinmeier and, “given the internal security situation, the president (Macron) said he wishes to stay in France over the coming days."

Nahel was shot during a traffic stop. A video showed two officers at the window of the car, one with his gun pointed at the driver. As the teenager pulled forward, the officer fired once through the windshield. This week, Nahel's mother said that she was angry at the officer who shot her son, but not at the police in general.

"He saw a little Arab-looking kid, he wanted to take his life,” she said.

Nahel's family has roots in Algeria.

Race was a taboo topic for decades in France, which is officially committed to a doctrine of colourblind universalism. Critics say that doctrine has masked generations of systemic racism.

The officer accused of killing Nahel was given a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide, meaning that investigating magistrates strongly suspect wrongdoing, but need to investigate more before sending a case to trial. Nanterre prosecutor Pascal Prache said his initial investigation led him to conclude that the officer’s use of his weapon wasn’t legally justified.

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Hundreds of police and firefighters have been injured in the violence that erupted after the killing. Authorities haven’t released injury tallies for protesters. In French Guiana, an overseas territory, a 54-year-old died after being hit by a stray bullet.

The reaction to the killing was a potent reminder of the persistent poverty, discrimination, unemployment and other lack of opportunity in neighbourhoods around France where many residents trace their roots to former French colonies — like where Nahel grew up.

AP Photo
A man walks past a burned van on the aftermath of protests in Colombes, outside Paris, Saturday, July 1, 2023.AP Photo

Despite the escalating crisis, Macron held off on declaring a state of emergency, an option used in 2005. But the government ratcheted up its law enforcement response, with the mass deployment of police officers, including some who were called back from vacation.

France's justice minister, Dupond-Moretti, on Saturday, warned that young people who share calls for violence on Snapchat or other apps could face legal prosecution. Macron has blamed social media for fueling violence.

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The violence comes just over a year before Paris and other French cities are due to host Olympic athletes and millions of visitors for the summer Olympics, whose organizers were closely monitoring the situation as preparations for the competition continue.

Thirteen people who didn’t comply with traffic stops were fatally shot by French police last year. This year, three more people, including Nahel, died under similar circumstances. The deaths have prompted demands for more accountability in France, which also saw racial justice protests after George Floyd’s killing by police in Minnesota, US.

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