In Nahel M., a Stranger Killed by Police, French Protesters See Friend and Kin
They called him their son, their brother, their friend, and they came by the thousands to grieve, to vent and to revolt.
Most of the marchers who gathered for a vigil on Thursday for a 17-year-old from the Paris suburbs who was shot and killed by a police officer earlier this week had not known him.
It just felt as if they had.
In the life and death of Nahel M. — the only name by which the young man has been identified publicly — they saw their own plight as French Algerians, French Moroccans, French Muslims and Black French people living in minority-dominated enclaves in a majority-white country that professes not to see differences in color.
Like them, Nahel was a French citizen of North African descent, in his case Moroccan and Algerian.
“Nahel could have been my brother — my brother is 17,” said Syrine Djidi, a 19-year-old university literature major walking in the crowd that swelled under the afternoon heat, filling the streets of Nanterre, where the teenager had been killed on Tuesday.
Ms. Djidi was a stranger to Nahel’s family but felt compelled to make the train trip from a suburb on the other side of Paris to show her support to his mother — and her fury at the system. She is a dual French Algerian citizen, and wore a hijab and a light blue abaya.
For her, Nahel’s narrative could be told simply.
“He was a nonwhite person in this country,” Ms. Djidi said. “Nonwhite people are targeted by the police.”
No evidence has emerged so far that Nahel was singled out because of his race. And this particular case has played out a little differently than past episodes of police violence.
Initial accounts provided to the French news media by what were described as anonymous police sources claimed that Nahel was shot after he tried to plow his car into officers who had pulled him over on a Nanterre street. But French officials soon began condemning the officer’s actions after a video showed that the young man was shot while trying to drive away.
And on Thursday, the officer who shot him was detained on charges of voluntary homicide — a rarity for French police officers.
The shooting has nevertheless rekindled an all-too-familiar conversation about race, power and identity that has been flaring in France for decades now, especially since 2005, when two teenagers running from the police were electrocuted after hiding in an electrical substation. Their deaths set off weeks of some of the worst riots in the country’s history, and drew attention to its racial fissures.
Angry police unions this week denounced the detention of the police officer, arguing that the authorities were pandering to the protesters to try to end the riots. But while French officials have urged calm and flooded the streets with police officers, it was not clear what effect the decision to charge the officer, whose race was not known, might have.
Many protesters said the video changed everything. Shot by a bystander, it showed the officer firing point-blank through the window of a canary-yellow Mercedes, as the car was pulling away from him.
“The difference this time: Someone was filming,” said Kader Mahjoubi, 47, who drove 50 miles to Nanterre to attend the vigil.
In recent years, studies have made clear just how prevalent racial discrimination is in France.
In 2017, an investigation by France’s civil-liberties ombudsman, the Défenseur des Droits, found that “young men perceived to be Black or Arab” were 20 times as likely to be subjected to police identity checks than the rest of the population.
Two years ago, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, launched a class action against the government claiming that it had failed to address the problem of ethnic profiling by police. The problem, it said, is “deeply rooted in the policing.”
But open talk of race is generally taboo in France, a country founded on the colorblind ideal that all people share the same universal rights and should be treated equally. In most cases, it is even illegal to compile racial statistics in the country.
In Nanterre, however, race was on everyone’s mind.
Mr. Mahjoubi, the protester, said he, too, had experienced being stopped in traffic checks by police. Sometimes, people rush away out of fear, he said. He was born in France, but because of his Moroccan heritage, he often felt treated like a foreigner, he said.
“I’m afraid for my children,” he said. “I don’t worry about robbers. I worry about the Republic coming for them.”
In past cases involving allegations of police misconduct, the legal proceedings have dragged on for years, and convictions of police officers are uncommon.
This time, a prosecutor was quick to say that the officer had no legal grounds for opening fire. The prosecutor also said a search of the car Nahel had been driving turned up no dangerous material or illegal drugs. The teenager was, however, known to the police for past incidents in which he had not complied with police traffic stops.
However swift the official response, it was not enough to soothe the worried hearts and clenched jaws on the streets of Nanterre.
“The country will continue to burn until we get justice,” said Sonia Benyoun, 33, walking with a group of local mothers who knew Nahel from their neighborhood.
The night before, Ms. Benyoun — who like other acquaintances of the family described Nahel as a kind young man who was good to his mother — had watched her block turn into a “war zone.” Cars were burned, bus shelters were smashed. The sight hurt her heart, she said. But she saw it as necessary to make a point — one that might finally be heard.
“We have the impression that nothing changes,” said Ms. Benyoun, a secretary.
The anger was palpable.
“Everyone hates the police,” they chanted. “We don’t forget, we don’t forgive.”
Nahel’s mother, Mounia, led the procession from atop the cab of a flatbed truck, wearing a white T-shirt with the words “Justice for Nahel” and the date of his death. At one point, as the procession reached the local courthouse of Nanterre, she held up a red flare amid a sea of people chanting her only child’s name.
Already, wafts of tear gas were floating down from the nearby square where Nahel was killed. Phalanxes of riot police officers would soon start to clash with marchers. The country’s tough-talking interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, had announced earlier in the day that he was sending out 40,000 officers to the streets — more than four times as many as the night before. Shortly before midnight, the government said that over 100 more people had been arrested on Thursday.
On one sidewalk of Nanterre, by the courthouse, stood an older white man in a suit jacket, a cane in one hand. His name was Philippe Dockès, and he had traveled from Paris to mourn a man he had not known because of a video taken by another person he did not know.
Mr. Dockès saw himself not as a protester but just an engaged citizen.
“It’s up to citizens to hold our institutions and the police to account,” he said before trying to gingerly make his way back to the train station.
Aurelien Breeden and Juliette Gueron-Gabrielle contributed reporting from Paris.
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