France was reeling on Saturday from a fourth night of rioting as the family of Nahel M, whose shooting by a police officer sparked the unrest, prepared for the teenager’s funeral.
The government deployed 45,000 police and several armoured vehicles overnight to tackle the worst crisis of President Emmanuel Macron’s leadership since the Yellow Vest protests.
France’s interior ministry said that 994 people had been arrested, compared with 875 the previous night, in violence which it said on Twitter was “lower in intensity”.
Nahel, a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was shot during a traffic stop on Tuesday in the French capital’s Nanterre suburb. A private funeral was due to be held later on Saturday, sources told Reuters.
Roads leading to the funeral parlour and the cemetery would be shut off, a Reuters witness said.
Nahel’s death, caught on video, has reignited longstanding complaints by poor and racially mixed urban communities of police violence and racism. Macron had denied there is systemic racism inside French law enforcement agencies.
Buildings and vehicles have been torched and stores looted in the unrest, which has spread nationwide, including to cities such as Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Strasbourg and Lille.
More than 200 police officers have been injured and hundreds of rioters and have been arrested, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said, adding their average age was 17.
Friday night’s arrests included 80 people in Marseille, which is home to many people of North African descent.
Social media images showed an explosion rocking the old port area of the southern city, but authorities said they did not believe there were any casualties.
Rioters in the centre of France’s second-largest city looted a gun store and stole hunting rifles but no ammunition, police said. One person was arrested with a rifle likely from the store, police said. The store was now being guarded by police.
Marseille Mayor Benoit Payan called on the French government to send extra troops to tackle “pillaging and violence” in the city, where three police officers were slightly wounded early on Saturday. A police helicopter flew overhead.
In Lyon, France’s third-largest city, the police deployed armoured personnel carriers and a helicopter.
And in Paris, police cleared protesters from the iconic central Place de la Concorde square on Friday night.
Darmanin had asked local authorities to halt bus and tram traffic, while Macron earlier urged parents to keep children off the streets.
Asked on a television news programme whether the government could declare a state of emergency, Darmanin said: “Quite simply, we’re not ruling out any hypothesis and we’ll see after tonight what the President of the Republic chooses.”
The unrest has revived memories of three weeks of nationwide riots in 2005 that forced then President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency following the death of two young men electrocuted in a power substation as they hid from police.
Players from the national soccer team issued a rare statement calling for calm. “Violence must stop to leave way for mourning, dialogue and reconstruction,” they said, in a statement posted on star Kylian Mbappe’s Instagram account.
Looters have ransacked dozens of shops and torched some 2,000 vehicles since the riots started.
Events including two concerts at the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris were cancelled, while Tour de France organisers said they were ready to adapt to any situation when the cycle race enters the country on Monday from Spain.
Macron left a European Union summit in Brussels early to attend a second cabinet crisis meeting in two days and asked social media to remove “the most sensitive” footage of rioting and to disclose identities of users fomenting violence.
Videos on social media showed urban landscapes ablaze. A tram was set alight in the eastern city of Lyon and 12 buses gutted in a depot in Aubervilliers, northern Paris.
Darmanin met representatives from Meta, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. Snapchat said it had zero tolerance for content that promoted violence.
A friend of the victim’s family, Mohamed Jakoubi, who watched Nahel grow up, said the rage was fuelled by a sense of injustice after incidents of police violence against minority ethnic communities, many from former French colonies.
“We are fed up, we are French too. We are against violence, we are not scum,” he said.
Some tourists were worried, others supportive of protests as some Western governments warned citizens to be cautious.
“Racism and problems with the police and minorities is an important topic going on and it’s important to address it,” U.S. tourist Enzo Santo Domingo said in Paris.
In Geneva, the U.N. rights office emphasised the importance of peaceful assembly and urged French authorities to ensure that use of force by police was non-discriminatory. France responded by saying that any allegation of systemic discrimination among its law enforcement was “totally unfounded”.
The policeman whom prosecutors say acknowledged firing a lethal shot at the teenager is in preventive custody under formal investigation for voluntary homicide, equivalent to being charged under Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions.
His lawyer, Laurent-Franck Lienard, said his client had aimed at the driver’s leg but was bumped when the car took off, causing him to shoot towards his chest. “Obviously (the officer) didn’t want to kill the driver,” Lienard said on BFM TV.
24 March 2020
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