The French police officer who killed a 17-year-old in a Paris suburb was on Thursday placed under formal investigation for voluntary homicide as the government raced to ease public anger and protesters planned a tribute march.
The deadly shooting of Nahel M, the teenager of North African descent, during a traffic stop in Nanterre on Tuesday has triggered two nights of rioting across France, prompting President Emmanuel Macron to convene a crisis meeting with senior ministers.
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Gerald Darmanin, interior minister, said 40,000 police, including 5,000 in Paris, will be deployed on Thursday evening to deal with any further protests.
While Macron has described the killing as “inexcusable”, he has condemned the sometimes violent unrest and pleaded for calm as justice takes its course.
The incident has reignited debate in France about police tactics amid longstanding criticism from rights groups about the treatment of people in low-income suburbs, particularly ethnic minorities.
Nahel was pulled over by two police officers for breaking traffic rules while driving a rented yellow Mercedes.
Police initially reported that an officer had shot at the teenager because he was driving his car at him, but this version of events was contradicted by a video circulating on social media. That footage shows the two police officers standing by the side of the stationary car, with one pointing a weapon at the driver.
A voice is heard saying: “You are going to get a bullet in the head.” The police officer then appears to fire as the car abruptly drives off.
The 38-year-old policeman filmed firing the lethal shot was taken into custody afterwards.
Civil rights activist Yasser Louati told Al Jazeera: “What does not surprise us at all is the speed at which the talking points of the police were immediately relayed by the mainstream media in France. Thank God there was a video that emerged online contradicting the official version of the police, pushing the government to react.
“At the same time, we should not forget to note how Macron was quick to react to the outburst of violence last night … he called the anger unjustifiable.
“The police is shielded from accountability in France … there is no transparency.”
French governments are haunted by the prospect of a repeat of the 2005 riots sparked by the death of two Black boys during a police chase. Those protests resulted in about 10,000 cars being burned and 6,000 people arrested.
Darmanin on Thursday deplored another “night of unbearable violence against symbols of the Republic”, adding that 150 arrests had been made across the country as town halls, schools and police stations were set on fire or attacked.
Overnight, cars and bins were torched in parts of Paris and nationwide.
Protesters launched fireworks at riot police, who fired flash-ball projectiles to disperse the angry crowds. A tramway was also set alight in a Paris suburb.
Two young men calling themselves “Avengers”, as they wheeled rubbish bins from a nearby estate to add to a burning barricade in the capital, told the AFP news agency: “We are sick of being treated like this. This is for Nahel, we are Nahel.”
Nahel’s mother posted a video on TikTok calling for the tribute march on Thursday for her son, her only child.
“Come all, I beg you,” she said. “We will all be there.”
Their lawyer, Yassine Bouzrou, said he would file an additional complaint for false testimony over the allegation that Nahel had tried to run over the police officer.
Last year, a record 13 people were killed in France after refusing to stop for police traffic checks. In 2017, officers were handed greater powers to use their weapons.
Among France’s left-wing politicians, Greens party leader Marine Tondelier said: “What I see on this video is the execution by police of a 17-year-old kid, in France, in 2023, in broad daylight.”
Right-wing politicians were quick to defend the reputation of the police force, with far-right leader Marine Le Pen saying the officer in question was entitled to the “presumption of innocence”.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Nanterre, said the situation on Thursday afternoon was “quieter”.
“This is a suburb like any other where people have to go to work and school, and the majority of people aren’t taking part in this violence. They are often very scared. Some people are worried about parking their cars,” she said.
“They don’t want to see the violence but they are torn. Everybody here understands the anger that is simmering. Nearly everyone saw that video.
“Unless people feel justice has been served and the police officer is punished, if he is found guilty, then the situation could become further inflamed.”