PARIS — Young rioters clashed with police late Saturday and early Sunday and targeted a mayor’s home with a burning car as France faced a fifth night of unrest sparked by the police killing of a teenager, but overall violence appeared to lessen compared to previous nights.
Police made 719 arrests nationwide by early Sunday after a mass security deployment aimed at quelling France’s worst social upheaval in years.
The fast-spreading crisis is posing a new challenge to President Emmanuel Macron’s leadership and exposing deep-seated discontent in low-income neighborhoods over discrimination and lack of opportunity.
The 17-year-old whose death Tuesday spawned the anger, identified by his first name, Nahel, was laid to rest Saturday in a Muslim ceremony in his hometown of Nanterre, a Paris suburb where emotion over his loss remains raw.
As night fell over the French capital, a small crowd gathered on the Champs-Elysees for a protest over Nahel’s death and police violence but met hundreds of officers with batons and shields guarding the iconic avenue and its Cartier and Dior boutiques. In a less-chic neighborhood of northern Paris, protesters set off volleys of firecrackers and lit barricades on fire as police shot back with tear gas and stun grenades.
A burning car hit the home of the mayor of the Paris suburb of l’Hay-les-Roses overnight. Several schools, police stations, town halls and stores have been targeted by fires or vandalism in recent days but such a personal attack on a mayor’s home is unusual.
Skirmishes erupted in the Mediterranean city of Marseille but appeared less intense than the night before, according to the Interior Ministry. A beefed-up police contingent arrested 55 people there.
Nationwide arrests were somewhat lower than the night before, which Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin attributed to “the resolute action of security forces.”
Some 2,800 people have been detained overall since Nahel’s death on Tuesday. The mass police deployment has been welcomed by some frightened residents of targeted neighborhoods and shopowners whose stores have been ransacked — but it has further frustrated those who see police behavior as the core of France’s current crisis.
The unrest took a toll on Macron’s diplomatic standing. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s office said Macron phoned Saturday to request a postponement of what would have been the first state visit by a French president to Germany in 23 years. Macron had been scheduled to fly to Germany on Sunday.
Hundreds of French police and firefighters have been injured in the violence that erupted after the killing, though authorities haven’t released injury tallies of protesters. In French Guiana, an overseas territory, a 54-year-old died after being hit by a stray bullet.
On Saturday, France’s justice minister, Dupond-Moretti, warned that young people who share calls for violence on Snapchat or other apps could face legal prosecution. Macron has blamed social media for fueling violence.
The violence comes just over a year before Paris and other French cities are due to host Olympic athletes and millions of visitors for the summer Olympics, whose organizers were closely monitoring the situation as preparations for the competition continue.
At a hilltop cemetery in Nanterre, hundreds stood along the road Saturday to pay tribute to Nahel as mourners carried his white casket from a mosque to the burial site. His mother, dressed in white, walked inside the cemetery amid applause and headed toward the grave. Many of the men were young and Arab or Black, coming to mourn a boy who could have been them.
This week, Nahel’s mother told France 5 television that she was angry at the officer who shot her son at a traffic stop, but not at the police in general.
“He saw a little Arab-looking kid. He wanted to take his life,” she said. Nahel’s family has roots in Algeria.
Video of the killing showed two officers at the window of the car, one with his gun pointed at the driver. As the teenager pulled forward, the officer fired once through the windshield. The officer accused of killing Nahel was given a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide.
Thirteen people who didn’t comply with traffic stops were fatally shot by French police last year, and three this year, prompting demands for more accountability. France also saw protests against police violence and racial injustice after George Floyd’s killing by police in Minnesota.
The reaction to the killing was a potent reminder of the persistent poverty, discrimination and limited job prospects in neighborhoods around France where many residents trace their roots to former French colonies — like where Nahel grew up.
“Nahel’s story is the lighter that ignited the gas. Hopeless young people were waiting for it. We lack housing and jobs, and when we have (jobs), our wages are too low,” said Samba Seck, a 39-year-old transportation worker in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.
Clichy was the birthplace of weeks of riots in 2005 that shook France, prompted by the death of two teenagers electrocuted in a power substation while fleeing from police. One of the boys lived in the same housing project as Seck.
New violence targeted his town this week. As he spoke, the remains of a burned car stood beneath his apartment building, and the town hall entrance was set alight in rioting Friday.
“Young people break everything, but we are already poor, we have nothing,” he said. Still, he said he understood the rioters’ anger, adding that “young people are afraid to die at the hands of police.”