Protests erupt across France over police killing of 17-year-old Arab boy

Motorcycle policeman shot the youth dead when he refused to obey an instruction to pull over his car as it was stopped in traffic

A man takes photos of burnt out cars and debris on avenue Pablo Picasso following a night of civil unrest in Nanterre, near Paris. The violence broke out after police fatally shot a 17-year-old during a traffic stop in Nanterre. Photograph: Mohammed Badra/EPA

Thousands of people will participate in a silent march on Thursday afternoon, two days after a 17-year-old Arab boy was shot dead by a policeman when he refused to stop in traffic in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.

The death of the youth, identified only as Nahel, sparked rioting overnight in immigrant neighbourhoods across France. Between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, 31 people were arrested, 24 policemen were injured and 40 cars were torched.

Interior minister Gerald Darmanin mobilised 2,000 extra police and gendarmes on Wednesday night in the hope of preventing further rioting, but residents of Nanterre predicted it would resume.

Nahel’s mother, identified only as Mounia, posted a video on TikTok in which she appealed for a silent march, describing it as “a revolt for my son”.


The teenager was killed on Tuesday morning after two motorcycle policemen pulled up alongside the yellow Mercedes he was driving when it was stopped in traffic. They ordered Nahel to pull over, but he refused.

In a video shot by a passerby and verified by the Agence France Presse and France Télévisions, one of the policemen is heard telling the youth: “You are going to get a bullet in the head”.

The policeman leans on the windscreen of the car and aims a gun at the driver. When the car accelerates suddenly, the officer fires at close range. The car crashes into a barrier a few dozen metres away.

Nahel died 10 minutes later of a bullet wound to the chest.

Police initially claimed the driver was trying to run over the officers, but the video, which was widely shared on social media, shows no evidence to support this.

The 38-year-old policeman who fired the fatal shot is in detention and is under investigation for homicide.

Speaking during a visit to Marseilles, French president Emmanuel Macron said there could be no justification for the death and that Nahel’s killing was “inexplicable and unforgivable”.

Police have opened two investigations into Nahel, on suspicion of refusing to stop and of attempted homicide.

“Not only does the death of the young man end the investigation against him,” said Yassine Bouzrou, one of three lawyers representing the family. “But from the moment the video was revealed, it became obvious that a charge of attempted homicide was ill-founded and must be abandoned.”

“The video shows clearly that a policeman shot dead a young man in cold blood,” he added.

Mr Bouzrou said the family will also file a lawsuit against the second police officer for complicity in Nahel’s death.

The incident has become a political football between left and right.

Socialist leader Olivier Faure said somebody refusing to stop for police “does not give them a licence to kill”, while Clémentine Autain, of the left-wing populist France Unbowed party, called it “a summary execution”.

Senior far left figure Jean-Luc Mélenchon demanded “the complete refoundation of the police”.

Polls show a majority of policemen vote for anti-immigrant, far-right parties.

In an allusion to Mr Macron’s statement that the killing was “unforgiveable”, the far-right politician Éric Zemmour said that “what is unforgiveable is to condemn a policeman without the slightest form of judgment, and to approve of rioters”.

The latest shooting, the rioting which followed and the highly charged, emotional atmosphere echo the deaths of two teenagers in an immigrant suburb of Paris in October 2005, which was followed by three weeks of nightly riots.

Someone fails to stop when ordered to by police every 20 minutes in France, according to statistics from the National Inter-ministerial Observatory for Road Security, Onsir. A record 13 people were shot dead by police for refusing to stop last year.

An internal note by the police inspectorate general IGPN says that firings by police have increased more than 50 per cent since a 2017 law authorised police to fire in self-defence. Prior to that, police were allowed to fire only when it was “absolutely necessary” and “in proportion to danger”.

The National Assembly president, Yaël Braun-Pivet, described Nahel’s death “an absolute tragedy” and said the 2017 framework must be revisited.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor