‘Police rough kids up here’: France reels after teen’s death

French authorities implement new security measures amid 3 nights of riots against police actions after teen shot dead by officer.

Charred buses that were burned at a public transport site in Aubervilliers, near Paris [Yoan Valet/EPA-EFE]

Nanterre, France – French authorities braced for another night of violence as angry protests against alleged police brutality brought the country to a standstill.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron held crisis talks with officials on Friday and announced more security measures will be rolled out to prevent rioting, clashes, and mass arrests.

In Nanterre, 11km (6.8 miles) northwest of Paris, people assembled on Thursday on Avenue Pablo Picasso for a “marche blanche” to honour Nahel M, a 17-year old shot dead by a police officer on Tuesday.

Many wore white shirts with “Justice pour Nahel” in black letters. Some brought white roses. Nahel’s mother rode on a flatbed truck, reaching down to grasp people’s hands and chanting, “No justice, no peace,” and “Justice for Nahel.”

By the end of the day, 6,200 people gathered in Nanterre, according to French police. Although calm to start, the march ended with cars on fire and police officers tear-gassing participants.

Nahel’s death, which was filmed and quickly shared online, ignited a wave of anger and violence in France with many frustrated about the rise in police violence, as well as years of discrimination towards people of colour and those living in working-class neighbourhoods.

Hadja Bah, who joined the march for Nahel, said she is familiar with these circumstances. Her brother, Ibrahima “Ibo” Bah died in a motorcycle crash in October 2019, while allegedly attempting to evade a police stop in Villiers-le-Bel, outside Paris. Bah’s family holds the police responsible for his death.

“For me, it is personal because my brother was killed during a police check. Impunity has to end,” Bah told Al Jazeera.

After Nanterre was hit with a turbulent night of protests, Fatiha Abdouni walked around the streets, talking to young people and trying to bring calm to the neighbourhood. Abdouni is the co-founder of the association Mamans des Pablo, composed of mothers in the Pablo Picasso housing complex in Nanterre. Abdouni then joined the marche blanche for Nahel.

“It is not normal for a child to lose his life like that, no matter the circumstances. We are here for our children,” Abdouni told Al Jazeera.

“Here in Nanterre, we are not educating our children. They sometimes go three to four months without teachers. And they cannot find jobs if they have an address with a Nanterre zip code.”

People in her neighbourhood have faced years of discrimination, according to Abdouni.

“I am proud to live in Nanterre. I’m proud to be Arab, an immigrant and proud to be French. But we are always stigmatised. I’m Algerian, Arab and I wear a headscarf,” she said.

‘Rough them up’

Alicia Ghezraoui, who is French Algerian, said French authorities can be quick to crack down on young people in this western suburb of Paris.

“I lived in Suresnes before, and it is very different how the kids are treated in Nanterre,” Ghezraoui said. “Here, when kids get into trouble, some of the teachers are quite violent.”

This extends beyond the classroom to law enforcement, she added.

“The police are also quite violent with kids, 13- to 14-year-olds. If they get into trouble, the police can rough them up. I’ve even been detained. So when kids see the police, they run because they are scared.”

Young men who appear to be Black or Arab are 20 times more likely to be stopped by police, according to a 2017 study by La Défenseur des Droits, an independent human rights organisation in France.

People in working-class neighbourhoods and people with immigrant backgrounds are often targeted by discriminatory and violent police practices, according to Jérémie Gauthier, a sociologist specialising in the French and German police.

“Nahel was an adolescent with Algerian origins. He is unfortunately part of a long list of postcolonial immigrants who were killed during an interaction with the police,” Gauthier told Al Jazeera.

“It is mainly young people, mainly men and postcolonial immigrants who are confronted by these particularly violent, discriminatory interactions with the police that are sometimes lethal.”

The difficulties for young people such as Nahel affect all parts of their lives, Gauthier added.

“This discrimination goes beyond the police: it is a question of education systems, employment opportunities, public transport. It tracks with social inequalities, what we would call systemic racism,” he said.

800 shots fired

Nahel’s death has led to protests and riots across France. Although the police officer who killed the teenager was detained and placed under formal investigation on charges of voluntary homicide on Thursday, the widespread unrest continues.

Some are likening the events to the 2005 urban riots, sparked by the death of two boys, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, at an electricity substation while they were fleeing the police in Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris.

The infrastructure targeted in the recent violence are sites of frustration for many of the young, marginalised people, according to Gauthier.

“This destruction of public buildings, schools, job centres, clothing stores and public transit all represent services that these young people cannot access and where they experience discrimination,” he said.

“And if you listen to the people who participated in the 2005 riots, the topics of employment, education, et cetera were already central.”

In recent years, France has experienced an increase in police violence, particularly in aggressive policing and fatal police interactions, according to Gauthier.

Experts point to the 2017 law that changed France’s Internal Security Code, allowing police officers to fire shots if a vehicle flees a traffic stop and the occupants could potentially pose a threat to law enforcement or bystanders.

“If we look from 2017 onwards, there have been more than 800 shots fired on vehicles by the police, which is around 30 percent more than from 2012 to 2016,” Gauthier said.


‘Need to address racism’

The open interpretation of article 435-1 in the security code leads to greater likelihood of shots being fired, according to Anne-Sophie Simpere, a lawyer and independent researcher on police violence in Paris.

“This is very problematic because it creates confusion. The police are imagining what could happen in the future, which is very unclear,” Simpere told Al Jazeera. “In France, the shots fired are very significant in comparison to our European counterparts like Germany and the United Kingdom.”

Analysts noted there was an even greater rise in police violence after the coronavirus pandemic.

“There has been a regular increase, and it was particularly strong after 2020,” Simpere said. “You also observe this at protests where more people are injured, particularly seriously injured.”

For Simpere, Nahel’s death represented a systemic problem.

“At the root of the problem, we need to ask why there is so much violence. The training and the missions we give the police are repressive at their core,” she said.

“We need to address racism and discrimination in the police, and in all of French society, but especially with the police because they have access to power.”

French authorities denied racism exists in its police ranks.

“Any accusation of racism or systemic discrimination in the police force in France is totally unfounded,” the foreign ministry said.

Source: Al Jazeera