France’s violent protests over teen shooting stabilize but complicates French President Macron’s situation after a week of violence.
The murder of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, reportedly of Algerian descent, has ignited riots throughout France. In some towns surrounding the French capital, curfews have been imposed due to the chaos, destruction, and confrontations that followed an emotional weekend during which mourners gathered for the funeral of a teenager whose murder by police ignited nationwide unrest.
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Since the night of June 27 in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, where Merzouk was shot, confrontations between police and demonstrators have spread to other areas of the capital and several other cities. A nationwide shutdown on the same day disrupted bus and tram services. More than 800 individuals were detained on the evening of June 29, as outrage intensified.
What caused the protest?
The victim, 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk, was driving a car Tuesday morning when he was stopped for violating traffic laws, according to prosecutors. In France, the teen was too young to possess a full driver’s license.
Merzouk was shot while fleeing officials at point-blank range. Prosecutors in France contend that the use of a firearm was not legally permissible.
Initial police reports stated that an officer had fired upon the boy because he was driving his vehicle towards him. A video that was circulating on social media soon disproved this account of the events.
In their account of the events, based on interviews with eyewitnesses and review of CCTV footage, prosecutors assert that the teenage driver had already disregarded a police warning to halt before officers drew their weapons. In this account, the teenage passenger states that the officers hit Merzouk three times with the butts of their guns, causing him to remove his foot from the brake pedal.
The officer accused of shooting him, who stated that he fired because he feared for his life, is in custody on voluntary manslaughter charges.
Merzouk had no criminal history but was known to the police. He had been cited in the past for driving without a license and for disobeying an order to stop. In September, he was scheduled to appear before a juvenile court.
Is the violent protest set to continue?
Since the beginning of the violent protests, several town halls across France have been damaged and set on fire by rioters. Two Paris suburbs with the worst violence have limited curfews. On Thursday, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was enacted in Clamart and was scheduled to continue nightly until July 3. Neuilly-sur-Marne was also set to enforce restrictions from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Merzouk ‘s relative called for “better training for the French police, weapons regulation for police, and reviewing the law that allows police to use lethal force if a young person refuses to stop at a traffic stop”. Merzouk’s grandmother demanded an end to the violence on Sunday and accused the protesters of using Merzouk’s death as an excuse.
Compared to the previous week, the number of incidents recorded on Sunday night was significantly lower. According to the interior ministry, 78 arrests were made across the country on Sunday, a significant decrease from the previous 24 hours, which brought the total to more than 3,000. 297 cars were set ablaze, compared to 1,900 on Thursday, and 34 buildings were damaged or set on fire, compared to more than 500 on Thursday.
As mayors started an anti-violence rally, riots in France appear to be subsiding. Mayors have called for protests outside of town halls in response to the violence and vandalism. In Nanterre, Merzouk ‘s hometown, mayor Patrick Jarry said he was pleased the violence had subsided, but added that “we shouldn’t lose sight of the incident that sparked this situation and the continuing need for justice”. Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron will meet with the mayors of 220 affected municipalities.
Could it be a case of racial profiling?
France witnessed a change in its penal code in 2017, granting broader authority for the use of firearms by police due to escalating violence. Critics argue that the recent surge in shootings during traffic stops is a direct consequence of this change, which they deem too vague as it leaves officers to determine the level of risk posed by a driver’s refusal to comply.
The riots sparked by Merzouk’s death serve as a reminder of the 2005 events when two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, were electrocuted while fleeing police and entering an electricity substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.
Merzouk’s case marks the second fatal police shooting during a traffic stop this year in France, with a record 13 such incidents occurring last year. Rights groups have criticized a 2017 law amendment that broadened the circumstances in which officers can use firearms.
According to official statistics cited by Le Monde, the annual number of police shootings involving moving vehicles has consistently increased since the legal change.
Campaigner Rokhaya Diallo raised concerns on BFMTV, emphasizing that more shots fired significantly heighten the risk of being hit, particularly for people of color.
A Reuters analysis found that a majority of victims of lethal police shootings during traffic stops since 2017 were either black or Arab, intensifying the debate around racial profiling and police conduct.
2023 is a year of protests for France
The protest after Merzouk’s shooting was not the first violent riot of France this year. Another riot had sparked in the beginning of the year before French President Emmanuel Macron had signed a law to increase the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 on April 14. This move followed months of widespread protests against the reform, which was pushed through parliament without a final vote. The country’s top constitutional body, the Constitutional Council, approved key provisions of the reform, including the retirement age increase and an extension of the years of work required for a full pension. Despite the ruling, unions and protesters remain determined to oppose the changes and had called for further demonstrations which did not stand for long. The signing of the reform had also sparked new fires of dissent in Paris, resulting in arrests and clashes between riot police and protesters.
A setback for Macron?
French President Emmanuel Macron is grappling with political turmoil as the crisis of 2023 continues to weaken his position. Both the left and the right are critical of his handling of the situation, with the left accusing him of ignoring marginalized communities and the right demanding a harsher crackdown on the violence and even proposing a state of emergency on a national scale.
However, Macron is hesitant to implement harsh measures out of concern that they will enrage demonstrators further and harm France’s international reputation. This crisis has already taken a toll on his diplomatic obligations, compelling him to leave an EU summit devoted to the pressing issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition, his highly anticipated state visit to Germany, a key EU ally, had to be postponed.
Concerns are also raised regarding France’s capacity to host significant international events in light of the ongoing unrest. With the upcoming Tour de France and Rugby World Cup scheduled to take place in France, concerns have been expressed about the nation’s capacity to ensure the safety of participants and spectators. The recent targeting of an Olympic swimming complex during the initial nights of unrest has not gone unnoticed, particularly in light of the fact that France will host the Summer Olympics next year.
Furthermore, speaking with the demonstrators reveals their deep-seated sense of insecurity within their own housing estates as a result of frequent encounters with the police. The United Nations has accused France’s security forces of systemic racism, which has exacerbated tensions on the streets.
As Macron navigates these obstacles, his political future remains uncertain with continuous violent protests, and the nation continues to confront a crisis with far-reaching domestic and international repercussions.