Prosecutors in the northwest suburb of Nanterre, where the teenager was shot, announced that the officer they said fired the gun was being investigated for intentional homicide and kept in temporary custody, according to the newspaper Le Monde.
Video on social media Thursday appeared to show tear-gas smoke and cars set on fire in Nanterre, where thousands had gathered earlier to march in memory of the teen, identified as Nahel M. Many wore T-shirts that read “Justice for Nahel.”
French authorities arrested more than 180 people Wednesday night into Thursday morning. Police said Thursday evening that 19 had been arrested on the fringes of the march in Nanterre.
In northeast Paris, protesters and police clashed for three hours, according to Le Monde. A kindergarten was damaged and police vehicles were burned in Neuilly-sur-Marne, in the greater Paris area. In Toulouse, in the country’s south, protesters shot fireworks toward police. Train services remained disrupted Thursday in Lille, in northern France, after an “act of vandalism,” the operator said.
On Thursday night, there were reports of fireworks set off at the Lille town hall, as well as in Nanterre and Toulouse, according to Le Monde. In Marseille, in southern France, regional police said Thursday night that they had made 14 arrests, citing disturbances of public order.
Overnight Wednesday was “the worst night of rioting in France’s multiracial suburbs for 18 years,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. In 2005, riots erupted after the death of two boys who were electrocuted as they hid from the police at a power plant outside Paris. The unrest prompted then-President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency.
The violence, if it continues, poses a political challenge for President Emmanuel Macron, Rahman said in an analysis. He said Macron will come under pressure to appease the “fury” over the death of a teenager at the hands of the police, but also “to crack down on the rioters with curfews and mass arrests.”
Macron’s office held a crisis meeting Thursday with top Interior Ministry officials to monitor the situation. The president is in Brussels and remains “in contact with his ministers and mayors,” a French government official said.
The teen was shot by a police officer during a traffic stop Tuesday morning. According to an account by Pascal Prache, Nanterre’s public prosecutor, two traffic officers on motorcycles noticed a Mercedes driving fast in a bus lane. Along with the driver, there were at least two passengers in the car, police said.
The officers tried to get the driver to pull over for a police check, but he sped away, Prache said. After chasing the car through the streets of Nanterre and seeing the driver violate several traffic rules, the officers pulled up alongside the car when it stopped on a major thoroughfare, Prache said.
During that stop, both officers told investigators, they drew their firearms and pointed them at the teenager to prevent him from driving off again. One of the officers said he fired a shot as the car started its engine, Prache said.
The driver received emergency care but was declared dead at 9:15 a.m., authorities said. One passenger was taken into custody, and the other fled the scene. Police said they are searching for that passenger.
Prache said an autopsy found that the teen died of a single gunshot, and that the bullet went through his left arm and chest.
The detained officer’s lawyer, Laurent-Franck Lienard, said in a statement Thursday that his client “acted in respect of the law.”
“My client was taken to prison for having carried out a shot that he thought necessary, with the arm he was given by the state to assure his security and that of citizens,” Lienard said.
Lienard said the officer apologized to the teenager’s family. “The first words he spoke were to say sorry and the last words he spoke were to say sorry to the family,” Lienard told French news channel BFM-TV.
Police unions rallied behind the officers. The Unite SGP-Police union said in a statement Wednesday that it “gives all its support to the police officers implicated [in this event] and to our colleagues involved in [responding to] the urban violence resulting from this tragedy.”
Anger against law enforcement has been building in France, exacerbated by what rights groups have described as a heavy-handed and at times violent response to protests over a government plan to raise the retirement age.
In this case, the outrage grew after a video taken by a bystander and shared widely on social media appeared to contradict initial accounts from police sources quoted in French media, who claimed that the driver had tried to hit the officers with the vehicle. The video, which was verified by news agencies, shows an officer pointing a gun at a stationary car and pulling the trigger at close range as the vehicle begins to drive off.
The shooting renewed debate around a 2017 law that relaxed constraints on when officers could fire their weapons.
Left-wing politicians, activists and an editorial in Le Monde called for the law to be repealed or amended. The measure, passed in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, said officers could shoot at moving vehicles if they deemed them fatally dangerous to themselves or others.
Since the law’s passage, France has seen a fivefold increase in the number of people shot dead in their vehicles, according to Sebastian Roche, a research professor at the University of Grenoble-Alpes who studies policing policies and police use of weapons.
He added that the shooting had spurred such emotion because of what he described as a legacy of police racism that law enforcement institutions often refuse to acknowledge. News outlets have reported that the teenager was of North African descent.
“In France, there is police discrimination,” he said. “But it’s not accepted that it exists.”
Yassine Bouzrou, a lawyer for the teenager’s family, accused the police officer who shot the teen of making false statements and of having an “intention to kill.” The lawyer claimed that the officer could be heard in the video telling the driver: “I’m going to put a bullet in your head.” The voices in the video are partly muffled by traffic noises, although the words “in your head” can clearly be heard.
Prache, the prosecutor, said the officers disputed some of the claims against them. The investigation will examine the conflicting versions of events, he said.
The officer who fired the shot said he did so because the teenager was driving dangerously, he wanted to prevent the car from driving off again and he was concerned for his own safety and that of his colleague, Prache said. But he said the officer’s testimony and available evidence led investigators to conclude that the “legal conditions for the use of the weapon are not met.”
The family of the teenager will file a complaint of intentional homicide against the officer, their attorney said in a statement.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said he asked that the officer who shot the teenager be suspended but that he has “trust” in the police force as a whole, according to Le Monde.
Police shootings are not common in France, but activists have accused the nation’s police force of discrimination and racial profiling, which they say go unpunished.
In 2016, police action leading to the death of 24-year-old Adama Traoré, a Black construction worker, turned the nation’s attention to instances of police brutality and racism, sparking an outcry.
Emily Rauhala, Victoria Bisset, Sammy Westfall and Adela Suliman contributed to this repo