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France’s protests over a police killing, briefly explained

France finds itself at the center of the global reckoning over police violence.

Flowers for the slain 17-year-old teenage boy Nahel M. are seen at his grave in Mont-Valerien, near the Paris suburb of Nanterre where he was shot and killed by police, on July 5, 2023. 
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Widespread protests appeared to ease Wednesday morning in France after police killed a 17-year-old in a Paris suburb last week when he refused to comply with a traffic stop, prompting a national reckoning on racism and excessive force in policing.

The victim, who was of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was identified by police as Nahel M. In the wake of his June 27 death, protests broke out across the country, including in the cities of Marseille, Lyon, Pau, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Roubaix, and Nanterre, the Paris suburb where Nahel was reportedly from. They became violent, with protesters throwing stones, bottles, and fireworks at police and setting fire to garbage bins, vehicles, and buildings, including a bank in Nanterre. Some launched fireworks at the home of the mayor of a French suburb, whose wife and one of his children were injured while they attempted to flee.

Police in turn used tear gas to try to disperse the crowds, and some municipalities in France took steps to restrict the use of fireworks and to ban protests. A 27-year-old man died after being hit with the kind of flash-ball projectile that police have used, and that is meant to be nonlethal, though the investigation into his death is ongoing. The French government has even weighed restricting social media to prevent further incitement of violence.

Overnight arrests Wednesday totaled just 17 across the country, a fraction of the more than 3,000 arrests seen over the last week as the French government deployed tens of thousands of officers to quell the unrest. That seems to be a sign that the violence is abating, even if many remain outraged.

There’s been “an explosion of general anger” directed not just at police oppression, but also at economic and racial inequities, said Mathieu Rigouste, a researcher in social sciences and the author of La Domination Policière, a book examining how French policing practices are rooted in colonialism.

Many in France see Nahel’s killing as a reflection of racism against Arab and Black communities in the country, given that it’s not the first time something like this has happened. In 2020, four police officers beat a Black music producer inside his studio in a viral video, just as Macron was considering legislation that would impose new restrictions on posting videos of police online. And in 2005, teens Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré — who were of Tunisian and Mauritanian origins, respectively — died after fleeing a police identity inspection and running into an electricity substation where they were accidentally electrocuted.

“You have a kind of immediate feeling among the public that this is symptomatic of more global trends in terms of police violence,” said Jacques de Maillard, a political science professor at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin who studies comparative policing. Those trends include, as the UN pointed out in 2021, “a steady increase in the use of excessive force, police brutality, and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, as well as arbitrary detention” around the world — and often reflect factors including racial tensions.

The circumstances of Nahel’s killing certainly seem to mirror many deadly traffic stops in the US and elsewhere. The public prosecutor in the case said that police tried to stop the vehicle because of erratic driving and the driver was young. But Nahel refused to stop, ran a red light, committed additional traffic violations, and endangered pedestrians, they said.

Police pursued him, and a video of the incident released Tuesday morning showed them approaching his car on foot, one officer pointing a gun. Nahel starts to drive away, but the officer fatally shoots him in the chest. That officer is now under formal investigation for voluntary homicide — the French equivalent of being charged with a crime in the US legal system.

France’s longstanding police brutality problem

France is seen as one of the worst offenders in Europe when it comes to police brutality.

After Macron rammed through controversial reforms to raise the retirement age earlier this year, French police used tear gas and batons, as well as stun grenades and rubber bullets — which are banned in most other European countries — to disperse the mass protests that broke out. That prompted the UN’s Human Rights Council in May to criticize France’s use of excessive force in law enforcement. Members of the council also urged France to address more general “racial profiling by security forces.”

The existence of racial discrimination in French policing is also well-documented. The French government’s own human rights watchdog found in a 2016 survey of over 5,000 people that men and boys perceived as Black or Arab were 20 times more likely to be stopped by police than others.

Civil society organizations have filed a class-action suit challenging ethnic profiling in policing in France, and the French government was ordered to pay a fine in a case brought by three teens of color who were stopped and searched by police while returning from a school trip in 2021. Aside from Nahel’s encounter with police, there have been many more such incidents of law enforcement targeting people in diverse suburban areas — including in Beaumont-sur-Oise, where Adama Traoré, a Black man, died in 2016 due to police restraint methods.

“In spite of international criticism and local struggles, the French state has continually reinforced its police, prisons, and borders (multiplying weapons, laws, and units specialized in ferocity) as well as judicial impunity over the last 30 years,” Rigouste said.

Attempts at reform have been met with fierce opposition by French police unions. In response to French solidarity protests over the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Macron’s administration weighed the possibility of disciplining officers guilty of “proven suspicions of racism” and banning the use of chokeholds. The first of those provisions was softened and the second was abandoned on account of pressure from police unions.

Again after Nahel’s killing, Macron seemed to be careful not to anger police unions in public remarks. While he called the killing inexcusable, he has also criticized the violent reaction from protesters and come to the defense of the police: “Our police and gendarmes are committed to protecting us and serving the Republic. I thank them every day for that. They do so within an ethical framework that must be respected,” he tweeted last week.

Even so, de Maillard said that Nahel’s killing might mark a turning point in actually getting some measure of real police reform enacted.

“The calls for reform have not been heard — until now,” he said.

Update, July 5, 10:20 am ET: This story was originally published on June 29 and has been updated multiple times, most recently with additional news from the weekend’s protests.

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