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French police officer faces voluntary homicide charge after teenager's shooting

The incident, captured on video, shocked the country and stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

A police officer in a Paris suburb was handed a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide Thursday after the deadly shooting of a 17-year-old that triggered two nights of riots, as the French government vowed to restore order and crack down on rioting that has spread to other cities.

The legal action came as police forces were quadrupled to quell the violence that has spread beyond the suburbs, bus and tram service was being curtailed, and one town announced a curfew through the weekend.

Nanterre prosecutor Pascal Prache said his initial investigation led him to conclude “the conditions for the legal use of the weapon were not met” in the shooting.

The teen, identified only by his first name, Nahel, was killed during a traffic stop in Nanterre on Tuesday. 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.

Under French law, preliminary charges mean investigating judges have strong reason to suspect wrongdoing, but 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.

Ministers fanned out to areas scarred by the sudden flare-up of rioting, appealing for calm but also warning that the violence that injured scores of police and damaged nearly 100 public buildings wouldn’t be allowed to continue.

After a morning crisis meeting, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said police forces would be expanded from 9,000 officers 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.”

His comments came after protesters set cars and public buildings ablaze in Paris suburbs and unrest spread to some other French cities and towns.

Violent protests broke out in France in the early hours of June 29, 2023, as anger grows over the police killing of a teenager, with security forces arresting 150 people in the chaos that saw balaclava-clad protesters burning cars and setting off fireworks.
A firefighter watches vehicles burn after riots in Nanterre, west of Paris, on Wednesday night.Zakaria Abdelkafi / AFP - Getty Images

Darmanin said 170 officers had been injured in the unrest but none of the injuries were life-threatening.

Three persons were in the car when police tried to stop it Tuesday, the prosecutor Prache said. Nahel managed to avoid a traffic stop by running a red light. He later got stuck in a traffic jam.

Both officers involved said they drew their guns to prevent him from starting the car again.

The officer who fired a single shot said he wanted to prevent the car from leaving and because he feared someone may be hit by the car, including himself or his colleague, according to Prache.

Both officers said they felt “threatened” by seeing the car drive off, he added.

Two magistrates have been named to lead the investigation, Prache said. Under the French legal system, which differs from the U.S. and British systems, magistrates are often assigned to lead investigations.

Paris Nanterre shooting riots
A police officer stands in front a burned-out hotel in Garges-les-Gonesse, north of Paris, on Thursday.Stefano Rellandini / AFP - Getty Images

The police officer accused of the killing is in custody on suspicion of manslaughter and could face preliminary charges as soon as Thursday, according to the Nanterre prosecutor’s office.

French activists renewed calls to tackle what they see as systemic police abuse, particularly in neighborhoods like the one where Nahel lived, where many residents struggle with poverty and racial or class discrimination. Government officials condemned the killing and sought to distance themselves from the police officer’s actions.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the killing “inexplicable and inexcusable” and called for calm. “Nothing justifies the death of a young person,” he told reporters in Marseille on Wednesday.

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.

Clashes first erupted Tuesday night in and around the Paris suburb of Nanterre, where Nahel was killed, and the government deployed 2,000 police to maintain order Wednesday. But violence resumed after dusk.

In early statements, lawyers for the family spelled the name Nael.

Police and firefighters struggled to contain protesters and extinguish numerous blazes through the night that damaged schools, police stations and town halls or other public buildings, according to a spokesperson for the national police. The national police on Thursday reported fires or skirmishes in multiple cities overnight, from Toulouse in the south to Lille in the north, though the nexus of tensions was Nanterre and other Paris suburbs.

Police arrested 150 people around the country, more than half of them in the Paris region, the spokesperson said. She was not authorized to be publicly named according to police rules.

The number of injured was not immediately released.

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 in his honor on the square where he was killed.

Justice for Nahel march in Nanterre Paris
The mother of the 17-year-old victim, Nahel, raises her fist during a march in Nanterre, outside Paris, on Thursday.Michel Euler / AP

Multiple vehicles were set ablaze in Nanterre and protesters shot fireworks and threw stones at police, who fired repeated volleys of tear gas. Flames shot out of three stories of a building, and a blaze was reported at an electrical plant. Fire damaged the town hall of the Paris suburb of L’Ile-Saint-Denis, not far from France’s national stadium and the headquarters of the Paris 2024 Olympics.

Bouquets of orange and yellow roses now mark the site of the shooting, on Nanterre’s Nelson Mandela Square.

Speaking to Parliament, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said, “the shocking images broadcast yesterday show an intervention that appears clearly not to comply with the rules of engagement of our police forces.”

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.

A lawyer for Nahel’s family, Yassine Bouzrou, told The Associated Press they want the police officer prosecuted for murder instead of manslaughter.

French soccer star Kylian Mbappe, who grew up in the Paris suburb of Bondy, was among many shocked by what happened.

“I hurt for my France,” he tweeted.