© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Residents walk past phrases written on walls of buildings at a neighbourhood where Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager, was killed by a French police officer during a traffic stop, in Nanterre, France, July 2, 2023. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/File Photo

By Tassilo Hummel

PARIS (Reuters) -Defiant gatherings were held outside town halls across France on Monday following a wave of rioting triggered by the fatal police shooting of a teenager of north African descent.

Police made fewer than 160 arrests overnight, offering some relief for President Emmanuel Macron in his fight to reimpose order, just months after rolling protests over an unpopular pension reform and a year out from hosting the Olympics.

The death of Nahel, a 17-year-old with Algerian and Moroccan parents, has tapped a deep vein of anti-police resentment in the poor and racially mixed suburbs of major French cities — known as banlieues — where Muslim communities of north African descent in particular have long accused police of racial profiling and violent tactics.

Since he was shot last Tuesday, rioters have torched cars, looted stores and targeted town halls, state schools and state-owned properties. Paris suburbs and Marseille in the south have been flashpoints.

What started as an uprising in the banlieues’ high-rise estates morphed into a broader outpouring of hate and anger toward the state and opportunistic violence.

The unrest, though, has not prompted the kind of government soul-searching on race which followed turmoil over similar incidents in other Western countries, such as Black Lives Matter protests in the United States or race riots at times in Britain.

Instead, the French government points to underprivilege in low-income urban neighbourhoods and juvenile delinquency, a reflection of the state’s belief that citizens are united under a single French identity, regardless of race or ethnicity.

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Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin took aim at families who had allowed children to wreak havoc on the streets, saying the average of those arrested was 17 with some as young as 12.

“It’s not up to the national police or the gendarmerie or the mayor or the state to solve the problem of a 12-year-old setting fire to a school. It’s a question of parental authority,” Darmanin said during a visit to Reims.

Some 45,000 police would be deployed for a fourth consecutive night, he said, to try to keep a lid on unrest which has seen more than 5,600 cars torched, 1,000 private properties burned down or damaged and 250 police stations attacked.

Relatives of Nahel have urged calm.

His grandmother said on Sunday the rioters were using his death as an excuse to cause mayhem: “We don’t want them to smash things up,” she told BFM TV. “Nahel is dead, that’s all there is.”

A crowdfunding campaign launched by a far-right polemicist for the police officer who fired the shot at the teenager had raised more than 1 million euros by Monday.

MEETING MAYORS

In the town of Persan south of Paris, where rioters smashed the town hall’s windows and damaged its facade in an arson attack, dozens of local residents denounced the unrest – one of scores of similar “citizens’ gatherings” nationwide on Monday.

“Let these wrongdoers hear it and let them know that hatred will never prevail,” Mayor Valentin Ratieuville told them.

Some bystanders engaged in animated debate over who was to blame for the unrest, revealing the divisions over identity that run deep through French society.

“We should cut everything, family allowances, everything related to welfare subsidies. Come on! If they are not happy, they return home to their country,” one pensioner who gave his name as Alain said.

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“Yes, sir, but let me tell you something. They might have foreign origins, foreign ancestors, but these kids are French,” responded Fatma, her head covered in an Islamic headscarf.

In mid-April, Macron gave himself 100 days to bring reconciliation and unity to a divided country after rolling strikes and sometimes-violent protests over his raising of the retirement age, which he had promised in his election campaign.

Macron postponed a state visit to Germany to deal with the crisis. He was due to meet the leaders of parliament on Monday and more than 220 mayors of towns and cities that have been affected by riots on Tuesday.

Vincent Jeanbrun, the mayor of the Paris suburb of L’Hay-les-Roses, whose home was attacked while his wife and children were asleep inside on Saturday, on Monday described the situation as “a real nightmare”.

“I myself grew up in L’Hay-les-Roses in these large housing blocks,” Jeanbrun, a member of the centre-right Les Republicains party, told BFM TV. “Our life was modest, we didn’t have much, but we wanted to overcome it, we had hope that we would make it with hard work.”

In Nanterre, on the western outskirts of Paris, flowers and other tributes mark the spot where Nahel was shot almost a week ago. Graffiti calls for revenge.

The police officer involved has acknowledged firing a lethal shot. His lawyer Laurent-Franck Lienard has said he did not intend to kill the teenager.


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