Home » Grief, shame and mob violence dominate France after Nahel M’s senseless killing

Grief, shame and mob violence dominate France after Nahel M’s senseless killing

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Grief, shame and mob violence dominate France after Nahel M’s senseless killing

As France burned in furious response to the fatal shooting by police of a French-Algerian teenager during a banal roadside stop, it was clear that the name Nahel M had become a symbol of a society at breaking point.

An apology from the prison cell by the officer who killed the 17-year-old in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, and now faces a voluntary homicide charge, did nothing to ease tensions.

Despite the authorities flooding the streets with 45,000 officers, mobs attacked police, looted shops and set fire to cars, buses and businesses in the capital as well as in cities and towns across the country.

Curfews were imposed, armoured vehicles deployed and public transport services curtailed amid calls for a state of emergency to be declared.

Thousands marched in Nanterre in solidarity with Nahel and there were familiar chants of “no justice, no peace” before Molotov cocktails and fireworks replaced peaceful protest on successive nights of unrest.

Such is the scale and indiscriminate savagery of the violence that it undermines two valid causes: justice for Nahel and calls for a radical overhaul of French policing, especially in impoverished, crime-ridden banlieues with their large, disaffected populations of Maghrebi and sub-Saharan origins.

The country’s fiercest rioting for 18 years is France’s version of the lawlessness seen in the US following such incidents as the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis (2020) and Daunte Wright in Minnesota (2021). France’s nationwide wave of violence in 2005 was provoked by a similar event: the deaths of two teenagers with Tunisian and Mauritanian roots in Clichy-sous-Bois, 30km from Nanterre. Both were electrocuted after fleeing into an electricity substation while being pursued by police.

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The alarming spread of disturbances – 1,300 arrests on one night alone, hundreds of police and gendarmes injured, and countless buildings destroyed – demonstrates the depth of the crisis. Police are seen by many black and Arab youths as trigger-happy agents of racist repression.

In important ways, Nahel has already won justice for the needless end to his short life in broad daylight last Tuesday. The 38-year-old officer who killed him was immediately arrested and quickly charged. There were significant shifts in official attitudes compared with previous cases.

Initially, police aggravated a volatile situation by suggesting the teenager was shot because the two officers who stopped him feared he would run them over in the Mercedes he was driving.

But the incident was captured on video. The short clip, now viewed by millions, clearly shows the officers at the side window of the stationary car. Then there is a gunshot as the car moves off before crashing. No drugs or other incriminating material were found. One young passenger was arrested, and another fled the scene.

Nahel, with no criminal record but a pending court appearance, is said by prosecutors to have been known for failing to stop for police.

But political reaction was overwhelmingly unforgiving. Gone were routine attempts to justify or minimise police actions, as has happened with previous shootings and when ministers falsely blamed Liverpool supporters for dangerous, chaotic scenes around the Stade de France before last year’s European Champions League final against Real Madrid.

Gerald Darmanin, the hardline Interior Minister who staunchly supports firm law enforcement, said he was extremely shocked. Members of parliament stood for a minute’s silence and President Emmanuel Macron moved swiftly – too swiftly, according to police unions and right-wing leaders – to express solidarity with Nahel’s family, describing the killing as “inexplicable and inexcusable”.

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Even Kylian Mbappe, the star French footballer with parental origins in Algeria and Cameroon, had his say. “I’m hurting for my France,” he tweeted. Nahel was an “little angel taken far too soon”. By the weekend, the player was leading the French national squad in calling for calm.

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