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France: Shooting of teenager sparks police violence debate

Rosie Birchard | Lucia Schulten in Paris
June 29, 2023

France reels from a third night of riots that erupted after police shot a teenager during a traffic stop. The killing raises questions about police violence in the country.

Prosters, most of whom are wearning white T-Shirts with "Justice for Nahel" on them, hold up their phones as tear gas goes off
French security forces on Thursday deployed tear gas as they clashed with protesters during a rallyImage: Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua/IMAGO

The fatal shooting of a teenager by police near Paris has sparked days of outrage in France and further afield.

Witness videos show 17-year-old Nahel being shot by a police officer at close range during a traffic stop on Tuesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron has described the incident as "inexcusable" but has also spoken out against rioting and violence protests which continued Thursday evening, resulting in hundreds of arrests

Police said that more than 600 people were arrested, and nearly 250 officers were injured in clashes around France in the evening after a tribute march for Nahel. 

The streets of Nahel's hometown on the outskirts of Paris were full of mourners earlier on Thursday, many of them dressed in white. As people descended on the Paris suburb of Nanterre to pay their respects to the teenager, sirens rang through the air and the mood was tense, with a heavy police presence.

"We live in a country where we aren't safe. When we go outside we could die at any moment," one protester told DW.  "We live in France which is supposed to mean 'liberty, equality, fraternity,' but that doesn't exist anymore. Now the police make the rules and do what they want. If they decide to kill someone, they just do it," he said.

"I'm so sorry for his family," another local resident said. "He was so young — just seventeen — with his whole life ahead of him."

"Justice For Nahel" protest in Nanterre, France
Protesters carried signs demanding "Justice for Nahel" at a march in his hometown on ThursdayImage: Michel Euler/AP Photo/picture alliance

Is police violence on the rise in France?

But campaigners are now demanding answers on how policing works in France. The European Network Against Racism said the death of Nahel, who is understood to be of North African descent, raises "urgent questions about the excessive use of force by law enforcement agencies, particularly towards racialized groups."

In a statement sent to DW, the campaign group called on the French government to "take immediate action to address the concerns raised by civil society organizations and human rights groups regarding impunity and racialized policing in France."

Jacques de Maillard is a professor of political science at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin and the author of the 2022 book "Comparative Policing." De Maillard told DW the death of 17-year-old Nahel is part of a broader trend: "The degradation of relations between the police and young, working-class men from minority ethnic backgrounds is a key element of the situation in France," he said.

"When it comes to maintaining public order, there has undeniably been a hardening of police responses in recent years, with violent episodes," de Maillard said. The political scientist pointed to a 2017 law which relaxed the conditions under which police officers can fire shots at vehicles trying to flee a scene. Last year, 13 people died in shootings linked to traffic stop incidents — a record-breaking figure for France.

Third night of unrest in France over teen killing

"When you broaden the possibilities of what can be done, the problem is that you create the risk of extensive interpretations of this rule," de Maillard said.

But French police spokesperson Sonia Fibleuil pushed back on accusations of rising police violence in her country. "There were 157 incidents involving shots fired at moving vehicles in 2021, and in 2022 there were 138 — so there is a slightly decreasing trend," she told broadcaster Public Sénat on Wednesday. Fibleuil said the use of weapons by police has also decreased from more than 300 incidents per year prior to 2019, down to 285 in 2022.

"When an operational shot is fired, it's because we are obliged to do so. We should not forget that the legal framework … outlines strict proportionality and absolute necessity," she said, acknowledging that the record number of traffic stop deaths in 2022 was "dramatic."

Academic De Maillard said there are "non-negligible differences" in approaches to policing in France compared with nearby Germany and the United Kingdom. "What seems different to me in these two countries is that the question of police legitimacy weighs more heavily on policy makers and police leaders," he said.

De Maillard says German police tend to be more careful when it comes to identity checks, and British police are "more inclined" to favor partnerships with the public.

Police officers take a protester into custody during demonstrations on June 29, 2023
Campaigners are demanding reform to France's police serviceImage: Dursun Aydemir/AA/picture alliance

Campaigners demand police reform after teenager's death

The European Network Against Racism wants to see the establishment of an independent body to investigate Nahel's death. "The untimely end of a young person's future due to racist police violence demands immediate justice and reform," the campaign group said on Thursday.

"Incidents like this only widen the gap between law enforcement and the people they are meant to protect," they added. "Only through collaborative efforts and a redefinition of policing can we hope to bring about meaningful change and ensure that tragedies like this do not occur again."

Researcher Jacques de Maillard also thinks something has to change. "It's not that the police institution is a total failure, but there is a collective responsibility," he said. "In my eyes, the institution has a broader duty to put in place systems for recruitment, training and management which emphasize independent checks on police officers' actions."

Still, de Maillard says the situation in France remains "very, very complicated."

"When you look at political reactions, principally on the right of the spectrum, there are some people who say that in part, the problem here is not the police, the problem is the young people," he said. "There are strong political constraints on police reform because it's an extremely polarizing question."

Edited by: Emily Schultheis

This article was updated on Thursday 30 June to reflect moving events.

DW Mitarbeiterin Lucia Schulten
Lucia Schulten Brussels Correspondent
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