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‘French people are angry’: communities react after protests

Residents give their thoughts on what happened in France after a police officer fatally shot Nahel M on 27 June

Demonstrators took to the streets and clashed violently with police after the shooting and killing of Nahel M during a traffic stop by Parisian police officers, Photograph: Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty Images

Just over a week since riots erupted in dozens of places across France, things have calmed down in Montmorency, an affluent Parisian suburb not far from the banlieue of Nanterre, where a French police officer fatally shot 17-year-old Nahel M, of north African descent, during a traffic stop on 27 June.

Beatrice, 37, who is on maternity leave, says the first two nights after the killing were calm in her neighbourhood, though constant sirens and bangs from fireworks could be heard.

Protesters clash with police forces during riots on 29 June in Nanterre, outside Paris, Photograph: Michel Euler/AP

“Then the riots spread out here as well, with cars set ablaze and shops pillaged. It was like a powder keg. The protesters burnt out a part of a shopping centre. We’re right around the corner from Epinay-sur-Seine and Saint-Denis,” she says, referring to two notorious northern banlieue areas with high crime rates. “We’ve taken precautions and installed extra security cameras, so that when this escalates we at least have some sense of security.

“We stayed home all week and are still not leaving the house after 6pm. We’re basically counting on it all to start again when there’s news [on the case]. It doesn’t feel like it’s over.”

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, described the police killing as “inexcusable”, in a rare criticism of law enforcement.

A prosecutor announced on Thursday that the officer who shot the teenager would be formally investigated for voluntary homicide, while a controversial fundraiser set up to support the police officer closed after it received €1.6m [£1.36m] in donations.

Like many others who responded to a Guardian callout asking people in France how they experienced the riots, with the responses reflecting how polarised French views are on the issue, Beatrice says the country is extremely divided.

“There is discontent and constant animosity between areas with ethnically French people and the immigrant community – a lot of antisocial behaviour. Friends who vote for [leftwing political leader Jean-Luc] Mélenchon say there is structural inequality in France, and that this [killing] was the last straw.

“My first reaction when I saw the video was that the police were in the right. There is racism and inequality of course, but I don’t think this was a good cause to go off on to protest it.”

Beatrice agrees with the widespread notion that the riots will embolden political elements of France’s far right. “I don’t think these boys are a segment that votes: they’re not interested in politics and don’t think about the political repercussions. I think it was the fact that they could see themselves in Nahel [that provoked them].”

Thibaud, a middle-school teacher from Strasbourg, feels conflicted about the wave of protest, but can empathise with the overwhelmingly young and male rioters.

“We live close to a difficult estate, where there were riots for three nights,” he says. “It was rough as we could hear shots and fireworks until very late, and a helicopter was doing its rounds. My wife got up several times to check if there was smoke where her car was parked.

“I can’t excuse violence, and I think it’s also very counterproductive because it will only backlash at the protesters and harm their own communities. But I can understand why people from those neighbourhoods, especially the young ones, are so outraged. The trust is broken and it has been worsening for the past few years.”

A protester holds a placard reading ‘Abolish the police’ as people gather to protest against racism and police violence in Toulouse, Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

Most of his students, Thibaud says, are descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

“When I teach them about justice, I hear their distrust. They don’t believe in French justice any more. Most of them think that there is a two-speed justice: very slow and lenient for the rich and powerful, and quick and harsh for the poor and ‘not French enough’ people. So maybe, the young people from the estate think that this outburst of violence is the only way to get justice done and be heard.”

“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 interview.

But many French people believe that police brutality is out of control.

Several of his pupils, Thibaud says, have frequently been asked to produce ID “for hanging around at the train station”.

He says: “I have never been asked once in my life, probably because I’m white and they are not. I don’t understand why so many politicians keep pretending there is nothing wrong with the French police. Since the protests of the yellow jackets, the police have been very violent and are now seen as unpredictable and prone to attack if they see a hint of provocation. The latest posts from the police unions, in which they called the rioters ‘pests’ and ‘savage hordes’, gave me the chills.”

Jason, a tech entrepreneur in his 40s from Paris, was one of many respondents who expressed anger at the rioters.

He says: “This isn’t a George Floyd situation, and it’s infuriating that this comparison has been made. I originally come from the banlieues, too: my father is Chinese, my mother immigrated from Morocco.

“I have a year-round tan, so to speak, and am familiar with being sort of discriminated against here and there. But I’ve had it pretty easy with the cops, because I abide by the law.

“I agree that it’s terrible that someone has to die in such circumstances, but you have to consider that this person broke the law repeatedly and endangered people’s lives. I voted for Macron, I’m not on the far right by any means. Perhaps the police could have shot the tyres of the car instead, but I’m very much on the side of the law here.”

The looting and vandalising of Nike, Subway and Apple stores, Jason says, made him question how much the riots have to do with demands for justice for Nahel M.

Clashes and looting of stores, including the Apple store on Place Kléber, took place throughout the afternoon of 30 June in the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg, France, three days after Nahel M was shot in the chest by police in Nanterre, Photograph: Roses Nicolas/Abaca/Shutterstock

“That kind of incident just gives 17-year-olds in tracksuits a licence to roam the streets and smash things. I know Nanterre well, I studied there, and my parents still live in a very similar place. Yes, there are some tower blocks, but you have access to decent schools and public services. There are some pretty horrible places, but this isn’t one of them. These people have opportunities.”

Lucie, 19, a political science student from Rennes, vehemently disagrees.

“As a white woman who isn’t living in the affected suburbs, I’ve personally not been directly affected by the riots. However, I have been truly shocked by the treatment of both the murder of Nahel and of the ‘riots’ – that I prefer to call uprising – in the media.

“Indeed, young Black and Arab people from the suburbs have been treated as savages and bloodthirsty gangsters for decades by the media, politicians and by the police. I don’t get why people don’t understand the anger of these youths that have been constantly demonised, harassed and hit with physical and symbolic violence for as long as they can remember.

“A kid has died. The police kills, the police is racist and politicians won’t acknowledge it. French people are angry, and rightfully so.”


(c) 2023, Guardian

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