‘How many Nahels didn’t get filmed?’: Voices from the banlieues

Al Jazeera speaks to people in Paris and the banlieues, or suburbs, about alleged police brutality and the latest riots.

People attend a march in tribute to Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer during a traffic stop, in Nanterre, Paris suburb, France
People attend a march in tribute to Nahel, the 17-year-old killed by a French police officer during a traffic stop on June 27, 2023, in Nanterre. The sign reads, 'Police kill' [File: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters]

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Paris, France – One week after the police killing of a 17-year-old in a Paris suburb, an incident that was filmed and went viral on social media, a sense of anger is still palpable.

Unrest across French cities that followed the fatal shooting of Nahel M, the teenaged victim of North African descent, has led to the arrests of about 4,000 people as rage-filled scenes from the protests gripped the world.

Police have been clashing with angry rioters, most of whom are teenagers from low-income French suburbs, like Nahel M. Vandals have damaged and destroyed cars, town halls, public transport and shops. On one night, rioters rammed a burning car into the home of a Paris mayor.

To some, the protests came like a “cri de coeur”, a cry from the heart. But others in France have condemned the unrest, saying rioters are using Nahel M’s death in Nanterre as an excuse for violence as they dismiss allegations of systemic brutality and racism within the police force.

Al Jazeera spoke to several people in the suburbs, where tensions between police and teenagers are often fraught:

‘I grew up being called a dirty Arab’: Tariq*, 52, plumber and father of five from Nanterre

“I grew up being called a dirty Arab on a weekly basis. What do you think that turns you into if you don’t have good parents showing you they care? I was lucky to have a loving family.

“The problem is with the cops, not the kids. They’re constantly provoking them. Even when [kids are] just playing sports in the street, I see the police come and insult them. This is no longer the 1930s. Things have got to change! I feel hatred.

“Violence is the only means of expression, the only way to get people’s attention.”

French riot police stand guard during clashes in Lyon, south-eastern France, on June 30, 2023, three days after a 17-year-old boy was shot in the chest by police at point-blank range in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. - French President Emmanuel Macron has announced measures including more police and urged parents to keep minors off the streets as he battled to contain nightly riots over a teenager's fatal shooting by an officer in a traffic stop. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)
French riot police stand guard during clashes in Lyon in southeastern France three days after a 17-year-old was shot in the chest by a police officer at point-blank range in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris [File: Jeff Pachoud/AFP]

‘Thank God for the videos. How many Nahels didn’t get filmed?’: Sara*, 22, Nanterre resident

“It was weird because the video seemed to show that Nahel had been shot in cold blood. And at the same time, the media kept repeating that the policeman was defending himself. It didn’t make any sense at all.”

“How many Nahels didn’t get filmed? Only a heavy sentence on the policeman can calm the crowds.”

‘I heard he was a good guy’: Inès*, 18

“Everyone was talking about it. I didn’t know Nahel personally, but I heard later on that he was a good guy. That was the word on the street. Fair enough, driving when you’re 17 at eight in the morning on a Tuesday doesn’t exactly make you look good, but should you die for this?”

“[It was a] clear police blunder.”

“It is all about being listened to, not just once but every day. Otherwise, violence is the only option.”

Flowers are seen at the site where Nahel was killed by a French police officer during a traffic stop. The message reads 'Peace to Nael, may the earth be light to you'
Flowers at the site where Nahel was killed with the message, ‘Peace to Nael. May the earth be light to you’ [File: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters]

‘Nahel’s story was hijacked’: Georges Gamthety, 48, communication consultant from Clichy-sous-Bois

“There was no internet at the time,” Gamthety says of large-scale riots that gripped France in 2005 after the deaths of Black and Arab teenagers in Clichy-sous-Bois, a Paris suburb. “[Then-Interior Minister] Nicolas Sarkozy went on air and eventually called the youth thugs instead of showing support to the family and the local community. … The media didn’t make room for any other version. … The public thought we were all criminals. And that was it.”

[Courtesy: Georges Gamthety]

“Nahel’s story was hijacked by group leaders who encouraged violence instead of using the opportunity to finally improve the law.”

Gamthety says money “came pouring in” after the Clichy uprising but ended up in the wrong hands, “in the hands of adults who didn’t make the right decisions for the kids and never upgraded us”.

“We don’t need any more sports community groups. Why aren’t our kids learning to be pilots or engineers instead of security guards and Uber drivers? Why aren’t we allowed to dream big too?”

‘There are other ways’: Land, 20, accounting student

“It started with the tragic death of a kid and turned into looting and shop robberies. That’s not a good solution. There are alternatives. They [the rioters] are hurting themselves. They are hurting the citizens who are innocent. There are other ways to get your voice heard.

“We cannot put all the police in the same bag.”

‘Police insult me’: Mike*, 16

“[Police are] not behaving properly. They insult me, harass me, tell me things like, ‘Talk well,’ ‘Shut up, you buffoon.’

“The way most of France treats us, that’s why we’re where we’re at. Some police officers shouldn’t be doing this job. They’re mistreating the youth, especially the youth from the suburbs.”

‘These are executions’: Mahamadou Camara, brother of police shooting victim

In January 2018, Camara’s brother, Gaye Camara, was shot in the head by police.

“Videos [of Nahel’s death] show these are not blunders. These are executions.”

“When the news spread of [Gaye’s] death, the neighbourhood wanted a revolution. Gaye never caused any trouble. He was loved and respected, and my father said we should not dirty his reputation [with riots], we should honour his memory.”

“I couldn’t push people to break the law. I told local residents, ‘If you want to fight for Gaye’s death, then let’s organise ourselves and find solutions for our youth.’

“We won’t get justice for Gaye in France. We’ve exhausted all the appeals, and they refused everything. They refused to share the surveillance footage. … The police will never be condemned.

“We’ve been asking for police accountability for 40 years.”

Protesters run from launched tear gas canisters during clashes with police in Marseille, southern France
Protesters run from tear gas during clashes with police in Marseille in southern France after Nahel’s killing [File: Clement Mahoudeau/AFP]

‘I agree with burning police stations’: Logan, 20, mechanic

“I don’t want any problems. I am here to work and have a good life. And deep down, if you really want to know the truth, I don’t agree with people burning homes. I don’t agree with people burning fire stations. But I agree with people burning police stations.”

Source: Al Jazeera