How the world reported French riots over shooting of teenage boy

Violence has ripped through French suburbs in days following death of Nahel M.

A protester walks by a burning car at night
Thousands of police officers have been deployed to tackle violence across France
(Image credit: Richard Bouhet/AFP via Getty Images)

The killing of a 17-year-old boy by police during a traffic stop in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre last week has triggered days of unrest in France.

Nahel M., as the French teenager of Moroccan and Algerian descent has been formally identified, was “shot at point-blank range” on 27 June, said French newspaper Le Monde.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in the suburbs of Paris and in cities across France in the days that have followed. Public transport services were brought to a standstill in the French capital over the weekend, after buses were set on fire during the riots last week.

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‘Grieve, vent, revolt’

“Because they could have been avoided, some tragedies arouse particular and understandable emotion,” said Le Monde. As Nahel’s killing was captured on video the charge of voluntary manslaughter brought against the officer that pulled the trigger is “hardly in doubt”.

Protesters took to the streets “by the thousands to grieve, to vent and to revolt”, said Catherine Porter in The New York Times. They “erected barricades, lit fires and shot fireworks at police” in Nanterre, said The Sydney Morning Herald, as “armoured police vehicles rammed through the charred remains of cars”.

Thousands of officers were deployed in an attempt to quell the violence and hundreds of arrests have been made. The protesters have been “calmer” in recent days, said The Washington Post, and Nahel’s grandmother has appealed to the rioters to bring an end to the unrest.

Mayors across France have “called on” the public and officials to “gather at town halls” in “mass opposition” to the protests, said RTÉ. The “extraordinary call” was made after the home of a Paris suburb mayor was attacked “with a flaming car in an apparent bid to burn it down”.

‘An ancient scar’

Groups of “French Algerians, French Moroccans, French Muslims and Black French people” who live in “minority-dominated enclaves in a majority-white country” saw “their own plight” in “the life and death of Nahel M.”, said Porter in The New York Times. Very few of the “marchers” knew the teenager personally – but for many it “felt as if they had”.

There is an “ancient scar” that troubles the French “banlieues”, or suburbs, said the BBC’s Hugh Schofield in Paris: one “born of colonialism, arrogance and long-gone wars and nurtured hatreds”. Nahel’s death “instantly inflamed raw nerves in neighbourhoods that have welcomed generations of immigrants from France’s former colonies and elsewhere”, said El País.

“The reality of systemic racism in France is routinely and aggressively denied by French authorities under the twin veils of colorblindness and cultural arrogance,” said Professor Crystal M. Fleming, from Stony Brook University, New York, at Al Jazeera.

Academic research has “long demonstrated extensive racial bias in French policing”, she continued. “The real violence” isn’t just the “burning of buildings and destruction of property” taking place – “it’s the very real human cost of victims like Nahel adding to the body count produced by centuries of French oppression”.

‘Stuff of bad dreams’ for Macron

President Emmanuel Macron said last week that the shooting was “unexplainable and inexcusable”. His remarks were “unusually frank in a country where senior politicians are often reticent to criticise police”, said CNBC.

Macron left an EU summit in Brussels last week to attend crisis meetings on the situation, and has called for social media companies to remove footage of the riots from their platforms.

The violence “is the stuff of bad dreams” for the French president, said the BBC’s Schofield. The events have “raised the spectre of riots that rocked French suburbs” for three weeks in 2005 after two men were electrocuted as they “tried to flee a police checkpoint” in a Parisian suburb, said Politico. Then President Jacques Chirac was forced to put the country into a state of emergency.

In 2005, “the rallying cries of protesters were social neglect, racial discrimination and police brutality”, said the BBC’s Schofield. Today, these “slogans” are “little changed”.

“The timing” of Nahel’s death “could not be worse” for Macron, said Politico. Weeks of protests over the pension age being raised had just abated, and domestic “discontent” over inflation “and a volatile international landscape” pose continued challenges for the president. His “message is one of appeasement”, the site continued: “but there is no guarantee it will be heard”.

There are “reasons to hope” that the unrest “will be less prolonged” than the events of 2005, said The Local France. No matter how long the violence lasts, Nahel’s death “demands both an investigation leading to indisputable judicial conclusions”, said Le Monde, “and a thorough overhaul of the conditions under which police officers use their weapons”.

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Julia O'Driscoll is the engagement editor. She covers UK and world news, as well as writing lifestyle and travel features. She regularly appears on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, and hosted The Week's short-form documentary podcast, “The Overview”. Julia was previously the content and social media editor at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, where she interviewed prominent voices in sustainable fashion and climate movements. She has a master's in liberal arts from Bristol University, and spent a year studying at Charles University in Prague.