In the Paris Suburb Where Police Shot a Teenager, Violence and Vigilance


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The first detonations of fireworks echoed through the neighborhood after a long, tense wait. A group of masked young people on scooters sped up a street lined with charred cars, heading toward the noise and billows of black smoke.

Keeping watch from a distance was a group with a different mission: to protect their neighborhood from further vandalism, even if they understand the passions inflaming the violence after the police shooting of a teenager.

“It’s starting,” said Rizlan Mohamed Saly as more fireworks lit the sky in Nanterre, the Paris suburb where the teenager identified as Nahel M. lived and was killed during a traffic stop on Tuesday.

It was shortly after 11 p.m. Friday, and Ms. Mohamed Saly was on her fourth night keeping vigil over Nanterre’s Pablo-Picasso district, a working-class area just a 20-minute ride from the center of Paris. Nanterre has been at the center of the riots that have engulfed France since the teenager’s death.

Groups of young people — some from the neighborhood, many not — have been roaming the area’s winding streets at night to confront the police. They light small fires in the roads and erect obstacles with iron barriers and garbage cans to slow the police who chase them. Sometimes, they target restaurants and pharmacies, prompting residents to stay up at night to try to protect the businesses.

The unrest has spread across the country, spilling over from poor suburbs to affluent city centers. On Friday, some 45,000 police officers were deployed to try to quell the violence. More than 1,300 people were arrested overnight, even though the clashes were less intense than in previous days, the authorities said.

Still, the continuing nighttime turmoil has signaled that anger over the killing of the teenager — who lived in the Pablo-Picasso district with his mother — has yet to subside. Nahel M. was of Algerian and Moroccan descent, and his killing has tapped into a deep-seated resentment toward the police, who have long been accused of violence and discrimination by residents of France’s marginalized suburbs.

“They killed a boy for nothing!” said Sami Benboudaoud, 20, who on Friday night was standing not far from a burning truck that blocked Pablo-Picasso’s main avenue. “For years, we’ve been saying that the police are mistreating us, killing us. But nobody is listening. Maybe with some riots, they’ll start listening.”

Those sentiments echoed the feelings of protesters, many of them young, in recent days, rekindling a deeply sensitive subject in France, where the authorities prefer not to talk about race and discrimination in a country that prides itself on egalitarianism.

But in the poorer suburbs where many people of color and immigrant backgrounds live, resentment bubbles just beneath the surface as they see opportunities cut off by often substandard schooling and discrimination in hiring.

Nanterre is one such suburb. It is better off than it once was, when it was known for vast slums that housed thousands of North African migrants in the aftermath of World War II. In the 1960s and 1970s, the French government built a large university in Nanterre and an important social housing project that helped improve the area’s public image.

The public-housing high-rises of Pablo-Picasso, standing just outside the Paris business district of La Défense, stand as examples of that effort. But Nanterre continues to suffer from high unemployment — 14 percent compared with 8 percent nationally in 2020, according to official statistics — and some neighborhoods, including Pablo-Picasso, suffer from drug-trafficking.

Still, the violence of recent days has baffled many neighborhood residents who see it destroying property in the place they live, which simply makes people’s lives harder.

“The anger is as strong as the violence of the tragedy,” said Ms. Mohamed Saly, who manages Le 35, a popular neighborhood restaurant, with her husband, Brahim Rochdi. “I understand this anger, but I don’t support the actions that have been taken.”

On Friday, she was part of a group of around 30 residents who spent the night trying to dissuade protesters from vandalizing homes and businesses. They gathered near Le 35, on a street littered with burnt-out cars. Soon enough, they witnessed a scene they already knew too well.

Down the street, small groups of black-clad people had assembled, building barricades and preparing firebombs. At the other end of the road, phalanxes of police officers equipped with rubber bullet launchers and backed by an armored vehicle had gathered.

After a tense standoff that lasted more than an hour, heavy clashes broke out near a traffic circle near the police lines. The protesters lobbed fireworks toward the police, and the officers let loose volleys of tear gas. The violence did not last more than a minute before rioters moving in pairs headed off on their scooters to relocate the fight elsewhere.

As they roamed the streets, the protesters set off small fires that would soon draw in the police, in what has become a nightlong game of cat-and-mouse.

“I’ve never seen such a level of confrontation,” said Benjamin, a local resident, about the consecutive nights of riots. He declined to give his last name out of fear of repercussions. “It’s just unprecedented.”

Locals said the clashes in Pablo-Picasso have attracted many young people from outside the neighborhood, and sometimes from as far away as Lyon — nearly 300 miles southeast of Paris — with the sole aim of vandalizing. On Friday night, the residents patrolling the streets confronted them and tried to lure away provocateurs.

“Who are you exactly? Where do you come from?” one resident shouted to a group of masked people, as he warned them against targeting nearby stores.

A few hundred yards away, the storefront of a tobacco shop had been smashed the night before. In the neighborhood’s public park, all that remained of a children’s merry-go-round that had been set on fire was its iron structure. “Local guys would never attack places they grew up in,” Benjamin said.

Yvan Ganza, 32, a furniture maker who has lived in the district for three years, said he did not think that the clashes and the vandalism “would do any good.”

Mr. Ganza lives in one of the neighborhood’s characteristic cylindrical high-rise public-housing buildings, with cladding featuring paintings that depict clouds in the sky and with windows shaped like raindrops. He can now hear the thud of fireworks every night as clashes unfold below his apartment. “Not the best soundtrack,” he said.

As much as residents of Pablo-Picasso condemned the violence, they said they understood the anger that has fueled it.

“Let’s face it, in France, if you shoot a Black person, a Muslim or an Arab, there are no repercussions,” Mr. Rochdi said.

France’s marginalized suburbs and the people of color who live there have long suffered from brutal or discriminative police interventions. A 2017 investigation by the country’s civil liberties ombudsman found that “young men perceived to be Black or Arab” were 20 times as likely to be subjected to police identity checks than the rest of the population.

But investigations into officers accused of misconduct often take years to conclude, and recent laws have expanded police powers, making it easier to shoot fleeing motorists, among other things. “It’s a two-tier justice system,” Ms. Mohamed Saly said.

Such is the mistrust of the police and the justice system that many residents doubt that the police officer who was charged with the killing of Nahel M. will be convicted, despite a video showing the officer shooting the teenager and the prosecutor saying that he had not met the legal standard to open fire.

Mr. Benboudaoud, who said he had been active in the protests, noted that initial accounts of the killing, provided to the French news media by anonymous police sources, claimed that Nahel M. had plowed into the officers, leading one to shoot — a narrative that the video rebuts.

“When will we get our side of the story heard?” Mr. Benboudaoud asked. In the background, more fireworks exploded.


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