PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday struggled to contain unrest unleashed by the fatal police shooting of a teenager, calling attacks on government buildings “unjustifiable,” while blaming social media and video games for stirring passions and urging parents to keep their teenagers off the streets.
The unrest has also spilled over into French overseas territories. In French Guiana in South America, a man was killed by a stray bullet while he was standing on his balcony amid riots Thursday night in Cayenne, the capital, President of the Assembly Gabriel Serville said in a statement.
Serville had earlier called for calm while expressing “understanding of the emotion aroused” by the “tragic” death of the teenager shot outside Paris.
More than three days of tumult has seen town halls set on fire, stores looted and clashes between protesters and police. The French president cut short a trip to Brussels and convened an emergency cabinet meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris to discuss measures aimed at calming tensions.
The escalating crisis is a test for Macron, a leader whose ambition on the world stage has in recent months been challenged by dysfunction at home. And it is a painful moment of reckoning for France, as the killing of a child reignites a fraught debate about race, identity and policing.
Some are calling for Macron to limit the power of French police. “If he wants to prevent more escalation, he also has to do something,” said Gauthier Hénon, a 26-year-old software engineer from northern France, who lives in Paris.
“A whole group” of residents in France’s suburbs, he said, “is being ignored.”
France detains hundreds amid riots over police killing of teen
Protests have spread from Paris to several French cities outside the capital, including Marseille, Lyon and Toulouse, since the death of the 17-year-old boy, identified only as Nahel M. and believed to be of Algerian and Moroccan descent. He was shot by a police officer after being pulled over in a traffic stop Tuesday in Nanterre. The officer has since been detained and has issued an apology to the boy’s family.
France’s Interior Ministry said it had deployed 45,000 officers across the country on Friday evening, and cities announced curfews and suspension of public transportation. At least 875 people had been arrested or detained on Thursday and at least 200 police officers injured, Darmanin said.
“All options” were on the table for the government to restore order, French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said Friday, calling the violence “intolerable and inexcusable,” on Twitter.
French leaders were quick to support the teenager’s family and have been unusually critical of the police. On Wednesday, Macron said the shooting was “inexplicable and inexcusable.”
“Normally, leaders don’t comment, they let justice do the work,” said Philippe Marlière, a professor of French politics at University College London. “There’s a kind of a consensus in France that you do not criticize the police.”
But Macron’s message has been muddled. He was filmed attending an Elton John concert in Paris on Wednesday evening as protests were underway, for instance.
And in remarks Friday, he focused not on racial injustice in policing but on the need for parents to keep their kids off the street and the perils of social media — an attempt, perhaps, to fend off critics on the right.
This moment of high tension comes on the heels of large-scale protests over Macron’s unpopular push to raise the retirement age.
Although the French president ultimately got his way on the retirement policy, the accompanying protests and strikes put France on edge and created widespread disruption. In March, Britain’s King Charles III had to cancel his first trip to France as monarch.
Macron left France on Thursday to attend a European Council summit in Brussels, but skipped out early on the second day of the meeting to return to Paris.
He was scheduled to travel to Germany this weekend for the first state visit by a French president in 23 years, though some wonder if he will go.
In a statement Friday, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights urged that France “seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement.”
Some see parallels between the situation in France and police violence in the United States.
“Leaving aside the completely specific American racial context, the events are reminiscent of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man suffocated by a White Minneapolis police officer in May 2020,” read an editorial in Le Monde published Thursday.
The paper called for the government to clarify the 2017 Public Security Act, particularly rules on the use of firearms. “In France, no ordinary citizen, nor any police officer for that matter, should die during a traffic stop,” Le Monde said.
Deadly shootings are far less common in France than in the United States, and the case has sparked massive public outrage not witnessed in the country since Floyd’s killing.
French activists have since demanded an end to what they call discriminatory police tactics that disproportionately target minorities in France, mostly people of African and Arab descent.
In photos: Roads, buildings smolder after chaotic protests in France
Nationwide protests erupted after videos of the Nanterre incident went viral online in France this week, appearing to show two police officers standing beside a stationary yellow Mercedes AMG, with at least one officer pointing a gun through the driver’s window. The car begins to drive off, and the officer pulls the trigger, at close range. Later footage shows the car, which had at least two other people in it aside from Nahel, crashed at the side of the road.
According to an account by Pascal Prache, the regional public prosecutor, the officers had tried to get the driver to pull over for a police check, but he sped away. After chasing the car through the streets of Nanterre, a suburb west of Paris, the officers pulled up alongside the car when it stopped in traffic on a major thoroughfare.
Nahel’s mother, Mounia, wearing a white T-shirt that read “Justice for Nahel,” led a protest in his memory on Thursday, attended by thousands.
“This morning, he gave me a big kiss. He said, ‘Mom, I love you,’” Nahel’s mother said, recalling the last time she saw her son alive on Tuesday. “We left at the same time — he went to get a McDonald’s. I went to work like everyone else. An hour later they told me … that my son had been shot.”
French celebrities including soccer star Kylian Mbappé and actor Omar Sy have expressed their solidarity and outrage. Assa Traoré — whose half brother Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old Black man, died in police custody in 2016 — also issued a video in support, drawing parallels between the cases and decrying police brutality and racism.
Clara Bolac, a 22-year-old student who in recent months took to the streets with millions of other protesters to oppose Macron’s agenda, said she was in some ways positively surprised that Macron called the shooting “unacceptable.”
Amid mounting domestic political challenges, “he doesn’t have that choice anymore,” she said.
Bolac said the rioters’ anger was rooted in a deep sense of injustice.
“In the suburbs, they fear the police every day,” she continued.
The difference this time, she said, is that “for once, it was filmed.”
Suliman reported from London and Rauhala from Brussels. Frances Vinall in Melbourne, Victoria Bisset and Annabelle Timsit in London, Niha Masih in Seoul, and Ruby Mellen in Washington contributed to this report.