'I blame one person,' said mother of teen killed by police as hundreds arrested in French protests

ByJoshua Berlinger, CNN
Friday, June 30, 2023
Protests erput after French teen shot, killed by police
A French teen named Nahel was shot by police at a traffic stop, causing protests and riots across France.

NANTERRE, France -- The mother of a 17-year-old killed by French police said she blames only the officer who shot her son for his death, a tragedy that has sparked three consecutive nights of destructive unrest and revived a heated debate about discrimination and policing in low-income, multi-ethnic communities, CNN reported.

The boy, Nahel, was shot dead during a traffic stop Tuesday morning in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Footage of the incident filmed by a bystander showed two officers standing on the driver's side of the car, one of whom fired his gun at the driver despite not appearing to be in any immediate danger.

The officer said he fired his gun out of fear that the boy would run someone over with the car, according to Nanterre prosecutor Pascal Prache.

"I don't blame the police, I blame one person, the one who took my son's life," Nahel's mother, Mounia, told television station France 5 in an on-camera interview.

Prache said that it is believed the officer acted illegally in using his weapon. He is currently facing a formal investigation for voluntary homicide and has been placed in preliminary detention.

Protests flare overnight

Despite calls from top officials for patience to allow time for the justice system to run its course, a sizable number of people across France remain shocked and angry, especially young men and women of color who have been victims of discrimination by police.

That anger has, for three nights in a row, given way to violent protests across the nation.

SEE MORE: Teenager's death during police traffic stop sparks violent unrest in Paris suburb

Ahead of an expected night of unrest, France deployed nearly 40,000 officers Thursday and sent its elite police force, the RAID, to the cities of Bordeaux, Lyon, Roubaix, Marseille and Lille to help contain the protests, which saw 875 people arrested across the country, the Interior Ministry announced Friday morning. Officials said 249 police officers and gendarmes were injured.

Almost 200 government buildings were vandalized on Thursday night including 79 police and paramilitary stations, 34 town halls and 28 schools, according to the French Interior Ministry.

Confrontations flared between protesters and police in Nanterre, where a bank was set on fire and graffiti saying "vengeance pour Nael" (using an alternative spelling of his name) was spray painted on a wall nearby.

Scars from three days of protests were clear in the suburb on Friday, as was the acrid smell left behind by burning detritus, which was being removed. Streets remained charred where burning cars used to be, with patches of graffiti calling on justice for Nahel and insulting the police.

Near the site of a pitched battle with police, a smattering of dug-up bricks, tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and metal barriers remain splayed about.

A mall in central Paris was also damaged, while several other suburbs were rocked by violence, including Montreuil and Aubervilliers, where 12 city buses were charred in a parking lot.

Protesters threw fireworks at police officers in the southern city of Marseille, according to CNN affiliate BFMTV, while footage from the northern city of Lille showed fires burning on streets and riot police officers running. Six people were taken in for questioning after participating in a protest banned by authorities in Lille, the regional authority said in a Facebook post.

RELATED: 150 arrested across France in 2nd night of riots after police fatally shoot teen

All "large-scale events" in France have been banned as of Friday afternoon in response to three nights of growing unrest over the shooting death of a 17-year-old boy by police on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron has said.

Bus and tram services across the country also faced disruptions with a nationwide shutdown ordered for 9 p.m. on Friday evening to try to stem another night of violence.

Authorities in Marseille banned protests Friday citing a "risk for public order." People who ignore the order can be subject to arrest.

In Britain, authorities issued a travel warning due to "violent" riots targeting "shops, public buildings and parked cars." They also cautioned disruptions to road travel, local transportation and the implementation of curfews.

The German government expressed "concern" over the nationwide protests in France, adding there was no indication that Macron would cancel an upcoming state visit to Berlin.

Macron flies back from summit

The violence has prompted President Emmanuel Macron to hold a crisis meeting the second day in a row, BFMTV reported, as his government tries to avoid a repeat of 2005. The deaths of two teenage boys hiding from police that year sparked three weeks of rioting and prompted the government to call a state of emergency.

He had returned from a European Council summit on Thursday in Brussels to convene the crisis meeting.

The French president called for calm and asked parents to take responsibility for their children amid the unrest. He said the situation is "unacceptable" and "unjustifiable, especially when the violence is targeting public building."

A third of the almost 900 people detained overnight are young, Macron told reporters at the Interior Ministry. Authorities will be investigating the role of social media in inciting the riots, and there will be further "measures" announced in the coming hours, he added.

Continued unrest would be a major blow to the government's agenda. Macron and his ministers have spent much of the year dealing with the fallout of pushing through extremely unpopular pension reforms that were divisive enough that the government felt it necessary to launch a 100-day plan to heal and unite the country.

That deadline is up on July 14, France's national day.

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Macron attended an Elton John concert in Paris on Wednesday, even as the demonstrations boiled over.

Elton John's husband, David Furnish posted a picture on Instagram on Thursday of himself and Elton John smiling backstage with the French president and his wife, Brigitte Macron after the show at the Accor Arena.

If Macron's government is to address allegations of institutional racism in response to Nahel's death, it will be a tough balancing act.

'He saw an Arab face ... and wanted to take his life'

Race and discrimination are always tricky political issues, but in France they are particularly challenging due to the country's unique brand of secularism, which seeks to ensure equality for all by removing markers of difference, rendering all citizens French first.

In practice, however, that vigorous adherence to French Republicanism often prevents the government from doing anything that would appear to differentiate French citizens on the basis of race, including collecting statistics.

Mounia, like other activists, believes her son's race was a factor in his killing. French media have reported that Nahel was of Algerian descent, and the country's Foreign Ministry on Thursday issued a statement extending its condolences to Nahel's family.

"He saw an Arab face, a little kid, and wanted to take his life," she said, referring to the police officer who fired their weapon.

"Killing youngsters like this, how long is this going to last?" she added. "How many mothers are going to be like me? What are they waiting for?"

While the government's approach has so far been cautious, left-wing politicians and some activists have called for police reform, including abolishing a 2017 law that allowed police greater leeway in when they can use firearms.

Laurent-Franck Lienard, the lawyer of the officer accused of shooting Nahel, told French radio station RTL that his client acted in "compliance of the law." He claimed his client's prosecution was "political" and being used as a way to calm the violent tensions.

He added that his client was "devastated" by Nahel's death and he did not want to kill him.

"He committed an act in a second, in a fraction of a second. Perhaps he made a mistake, justice will tell," Lienard said.

The video in the player above is from an earlier report.

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