France is currently facing a critical situation following the tragic police shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in the Paris suburb of Nanterre on Tuesday 27 June 2023, which was caught on video and shocked the country. This heartbreaking event sparked a series of widespread violent protests, causing tensions to rise and divisions to deepen throughout the nation.
In the wake of consecutive nights of riots and protests throughout France in response to the police shooting of a teenager of Algerian and Moroccan heritage, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) has called upon the country to confront its legacy of racism within law enforcement.
As France continues to be trapped in a spiral of chaos and decline—one that many are saying never truly stopped ever since the country was wracked by weeks of urban rioting in 2005—it’s crucial to highlight the different viewpoints and political perspectives which have been showcased over the past week. This includes those who believe that these extreme and violent protests are necessary in order to bring about change and those who strongly oppose such actions and are calling for the riots to end.
The most striking proof of just how profound this divide is has been exemplified by Merzouk’s own family and the extremely different messages they’ve been promoting since the murder of the teenager.
Merzouk, a young French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was an only child who’d been raised by his mother, Mounia. The 17-year-old worked as a takeaway delivery driver and played in a rugby league on the weekends. Then, as mentioned previously, Merzouk was fatally shot at point-blank range in the chest during a police traffic check on 27 June.
Immediately following the incident, protests began to spread throughout Paris and the rest of the country, igniting a fierce debate regarding the police’s brutal tactics, including the use of weapons such as flashballs and rubber bullets, as well as allegations of systemic racism—a problem which has permeated France’s police force for some time. It also stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
The tragic event marks the third fatal shooting by police during traffic stops in France this year. It’s also the twenty-first incident of its kind since 2020. Notably, a significant proportion of the victims involved in these incidents have been individuals of Black or North African descent, as reported by The Guardian.
The murder of the teenager, and the fact that it was actually caught on camera, has understandably caused a polarisation of public and political positions in France. The country’s police force has faced growing criticism for their use of force, which has at times resulted in fatalities. Moreover, accusations of endemic racism have been leveled against the police, intensifying the controversy surrounding Merzouk’s tragic death.
The violent protests have intensified in recent days, leading to escalating acts of aggression and looting. Numerous official and private buildings, buses, trams, sports centres, and schools have been targeted.
The response to the boy’s death has revealed a stark division within French society, and within Merzouk’s family itself. On one hand, the 17-year-old’s grandmother, Nadia, has emerged as a strong advocate for peace, urging protesters to refrain from violence and stop the rioting.
In a heartfelt interview with CNN, she expressed her thoughts on how damaging schools and destroying public transportation would not bring about the desired change the public was looking for, stating: “They should not damage the schools, not break the buses, it’s the moms who take the buses.”
On the other hand, the boy’s mother has actively participated in the protests, standing in solidarity with fellow demonstrators. Her involvement reflects the depth of pain and anger she feels over the loss of her son. But it’s also about more than seeking justice for Nahel, Mounia wants her son’s story to be heard in order to shed light on the countless other victims of police brutality in France.
Merzouk’s mother’s active engagement in the protests highlights not only the complexity of emotions and different ways individuals cope with tragedy but also generational differences when it comes to protesting and the concept of public dissent. While Mounia’s participation might be seen as contradicting her own mother’s call for peace, it is essential to recognise the profound grief and the need for individuals to channel their pain into action.
During the early hours of Sunday, the Mayor of a suburb in Paris made a distressing report that his residence had been subjected to an attack, referring to it as an “assassination attempt” on his family. “At 1:30 am, while I was at the city hall like the past three nights, individuals rammed their car upon my residence before setting fire to it to burn my house, inside which my wife and my two young children slept,” said the mayor Vincent Jeanbrun of L’Haÿ-les-Roses in a statement.
“While trying to protect the children and escape the attackers, my wife and one of my children were injured,” Jeanbrun went on to add.
Meanwhile, in response to these five days of protests, the Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin reported that over 1,300 individuals were arrested on Friday night and early Saturday morning. The acts of arson resulted in the destruction of more than 230 buildings, including town halls, and the burning of 1,350 vehicles. Shockingly, the average age of those detained was 17, with some as young as 13.
To combat the escalating unrest, the authorities deployed a substantial security force, including 45,000 police and gendarmes, along with 24 helicopters and several armored vehicles. Disturbing images circulated throughout French media, depicting rioters dressed in black, armed with automatic rifles and shotguns.
France now finds itself at a critical juncture, as violent protests continue to rage on. The path to healing and reconciliation lies in fostering open dialogue, accountability for police wrongdoing, and legitimate change which can hopefully reunite a nation that is currently completely divided in half. Until a proper response is given, it’s unlikely that the riots will rest.