‘Justice for Steve’: Friends of drowned music fan demand answers from French police

Steve Caniço’s body found in river Loire a month after police raid on music festival

For 38 days, from Steve Caniço's disappearance in the early hours of June 22nd until his body was identified on Tuesday afternoon, the young man's friends plastered the walls of Nantes with posters demanding, "Where is Steve?" They flooded social media and painted graffiti across France asking the same question. The slogan has changed now, to "Justice For Steve".

Caniço, a 24-year-old organiser of extra-curricular activities for children, was at a late-night open-air techno concert following the annual Fête de la Musique on the night of June 21st-22nd. Police used violence to break up the gathering at 4.30am.

There are no guardrails on the quai Wilson, where the concert took place, and up to 14 people fell into the Loire river. Caniço’s body was found by a boatman five weeks later, about 1km downstream. He was identified by necklaces and a shoe.

Residents of Nantes placed roses on the riverbank near where Caniço’s body was found. Black armbands appeared on hundreds of statues in a summer installation on the Place Royale. Caniço’s friends poured red dye into the fountain on the square, which represents the Loire and its tributaries. Someone added the words “Justice for Steve”, in red, to a huge black-and-white fresco portraying the police intervention.


The IGPN says police did not charge the concert-goers or push them into the river

Though accounts by police and concert-goers vary, it seems clear that revellers threw projectiles at police, who retaliated with 33 tear gas grenades, 12 “flashball” grenades and 10 “sting-ball” grenades, according to a report by the Inspection Générale de la Police Nationale (IGPN).

Prime minister Édouard Philippe made the IGPN report public on Tuesday, quoting its conclusion that “no link can be established between the intervention of the police force and the disappearance of Steve Maia Caniço”.

Riot gear

The IGPN report says there was an argument first, when a DJ refused to turn off the music. Police pulled back to don protective riot gear and were pelted with bottles before firing back.

The IGPN says police did not charge the concert-goers or push them into the river.

But 15 videos analysed by Libération newspaper show a dozen police officers advancing in a line towards the sound equipment. Cries of “There’s water behind! The Loire is behind!” and “There are guys in the water! There are guys in the Loire!” can be heard on the videos.

As police advanced, panic took hold and young people began falling in the river. The IGPN report says they were drunk, that at least three fell in before police intervened, and that none claim to have been pushed by them.

Several rescue workers recall being told that a man sank and did not resurface. Steve Caniço did not know how to swim. “When he came to my pool, I tried to teach him to swim,” one of Caniço’s friends told Libération. “I can’t imagine him jumping in the water.”

Caniço’s death and accusations against the police follow months of alleged police brutality against gilets jaunes or yellow vest protesters. Last March, the UN high commissioner for human rights criticised the “excessive use of force” by French security forces against demonstrators.

Interior minister Christophe Castaner, a brash character who is close to president Emmanuel Macron, was already under fire before Caniço's death. He stood silently beside the prime minister on Tuesday.

Édouard Philippe does empathy better than Castaner. He called Caniço’s death “a tragedy that touches us all”.

“Words count for little when one loses one’s child, but I want to meet [Caniço’s parents] soon, with the interior minister, to express our support and determination to achieve total transparency,” Philippe said.

Second inquiry

Philippe tacitly accepted the far left’s argument that “the police should not investigate the police” by commissioning a second inquiry, by the inspector general of the administration. “The course of events that evening remains confused, and I obviously cannot be satisfied with that,” Philippe said. He promised the results will be made public within a month.

Last summer, Macron was in the frontline of the scandal that started when a video emerged showing his former bodyguard, Alexandre Benalla, beating up protesters.

No one can say an intervention that led a dozen youths to throw themselves in the Loire was proportionate

Macron has taken a backseat to Philippe in the Caniço affair. He is on holiday at the president’s summer residence near Toulon. The Élysée said only that Macron told Philippe and Castaner he “wants total transparency in this affair, and asked them to take the necessary initiatives”.

Two days after Caniço’s disappearance, Claude d’Harcourt, the prefect of Nantes, told a local radio station that police “always intervene in a proportionate manner”. That is disputed by numerous politicians, on the left but also in Macron’s own party.

"No one can say an intervention that led a dozen youths to throw themselves in the Loire was proportionate," Mounir Belhamiti, the deputy from Macron's party for the Nantes district, wrote on his Facebook page.