NANTERRE, France (AP) — France braced for another feared eruption of urban rioting Thursday night after the deadly police shooting of a suburban 17-year-old, with tens of thousands of officers hitting the streets and commuters rushing home before transport services closed down early for safety reasons.
Despite government appeals for calm and vows that order would be restored, smoke from cars and garbage set ablaze was already billowing over the streets of the Paris suburb of Nanterre following a peaceful afternoon march in honor of the teen identified only by his first name, Nahel.
The police officer accused of pulling the trigger was handed a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide after prosecutor Pascal Prache said his initial investigation led him to conclude “the conditions for the legal use of the weapon were not met.”
After a morning crisis meeting following violence that injured scores of police and damaged nearly 100 public buildings, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the number of police officers would more than quadruple, from 9,000 to 40,000. In the Paris region alone, the number of officers deployed would more than double to 5,000.
“The professionals of disorder must go home,” Darmanin said. While there’s no need yet to declare a state of emergency — a measure taken to quell weeks of rioting in 2005 — he added: “The state’s response will be extremely firm.”
Bus and tram services in the Paris area were shutting down before sunset to as a precaution to safeguard transportation workers and passengers, a decision sure to impact thousands of travelers in the French capital and its suburbs.
“Our transports are not targets for thugs and vandals!” Valerie Pecresse, head of the Paris region tweeted.
The town of Clamart, home to 54,000 people in the French capital’s southwest suburbs, said it was taking the extraordinary step of putting an overnight curfew in place from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. through to Monday.
It cited “the risk of new public order disturbances” for the decision, after two nights of urban unrest. “Clamart is a safe and calm town, we are determined that it stay that way,” it said.
The shooting captured on video shocked the country and stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people in housing projects and other disadvantaged neighborhoods.
The teenager’s family and their lawyers haven’t said the police shooting was race-related and they didn’t release his surname or details about him.
Still, his death instantly inflamed raw nerves in neighborhoods that have welcomed generations of immigrants from France’s former colonies and elsewhere. Their France-born children frequently complain that they are subjected to police ID checks and harassment far more frequently than white people or those in more affluent neighborhoods.
Anti-racism activists renewed their complaints about police behavior in the shooting’s wake.
“We have to go beyond saying that things need to calm down,” said Dominique Sopo, head of the campaign group SOS Racisme. “The issue here is how do we make it so that we have a police force that, when they see Blacks and Arabs, don’t tend to shout at them, use racist terms against them and in some cases, shoot them in the head.”
Prache, the Nanterre prosecutor, said officers tried to stop Nahel because he looked so young and was driving a Mercedes with Polish license plates in a bus lane.
He ran a red light to avoid being stopped then got stuck in traffic. Both officers involved said they drew their guns to prevent him from fleeing.
The officer who fired a single shot said he feared he and his colleague or someone else could be hit by the car, according to Prache. The officers said they felt “threatened” as the car drove off.
Two magistrates are leading the investigation, Prache said. Under French law, which differs from the U.S. and British legal systems, magistrates often lead investigations.
Preliminary charges mean investigating judges have strong reason to suspect wrongdoing, but they allow time for further investigation before a decision is made on whether to send the case to trial. The police officer has been placed in provisional detention, according to the prosecutor’s office.
In a separate case, a police officer who fatally shot a 19-year-old Guinean man in western France has preliminarily been charged with voluntary homicide, the local prosecutor said Wednesday. The man was fatally shot by an officer as he allegedly tried to flee a traffic stop. The investigation is still ongoing.
Despite a beefed-up police presence Wednesday night, violence resumed after dusk with protesters shooting fireworks and hurling stones at police in Nanterre, who fired repeated volleys of tear gas.
As demonstrations spread to other towns, police and firefighters struggled to contain protesters and extinguish numerous blazes. Schools, police stations, town halls and other public buildings were damaged from Toulouse in the south to Lille in the north, with most of the damage in the Paris suburbs, according to a spokesperson for the national police.
Fire damaged the town hall in the the Paris suburb of L’Ile-Saint-Denis, not far from the country’s national stadium and the headquarters of the Paris 2024 Olympics.
Darmanin said 170 officers had been injured in the unrest but none of the injuries was life-threatening. At least 90 public buildings were vandalized.
The number of civilians injured was not immediately released.
Scenes of violence in France’s suburbs echo 2005, when the deaths of 15-year-old Bouna Traoré and 17-year-old Zyed Benna led to three weeks of nationwide riots, exposing anger and resentment in neglected, crime-ridden suburban housing projects.
The two boys were electrocuted after hiding from police in a power substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.
French President Emmanuel Macron held an emergency security meeting Thursday about the violence.
“These acts are totally unjustifiable,” Macron said at the beginning of the meeting, which aimed at securing hot spots and planning for the coming days “so full peace can return.”
Macron also said it was time for “remembrance and respect” as Nahel’s mother called for a silent march Thursday that drew a large crowd to Nelson Mandela Square, where he was killed.
Some marchers had “Justice for Nahel” printed on the front of their T-shirts. “The police kill” read one marcher’s placard.
“I’m afraid of what might come next,” said marcher Amira Taoubas, a mother of four boys, the eldest aged 11. “I’d like it to stop and that it never happens again. It’s just not possible to die like this, for no reason. I wouldn’t want it to happen to my own children.”
Bouquets of orange and yellow roses now mark the site of the shooting.
Government officials condemned the killing and sought to distance themselves from the police officer’s actions.
Videos of the shooting shared online show two police officers leaning into the driver-side window of a yellow car before the vehicle pulls away as one officer fires into the window. The videos show the car later crashed into a post nearby.
The driver died at the scene, the prosecutor’s office said.
Deadly use of firearms is less common in France than in the United States, though several people have died or sustained injuries at the hands of French police in recent years, prompting demands for more accountability. France also saw protests against racial profiling and other injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minnesota.
The most recent government statistics available show that 17 people were killed after police and gendarmerie officers shot at them in 2021.
Asked about police abuses, Macron said justice should be allowed to run its course.
Sylvie Corbet, Alex Turnbull and John Leicester reported from Paris. Oleg Cetinic, Christophe Ena and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Nanterre; Angela Charlton in Paris; and Brian Melley in London contributed to this story.