Nahel Merzouk was a 17-year-old rugby enthusiast who worked as a delivery driver. He was stopped by police as he was driving in a bus lane, on June 27, in a car with two friends as passengers.
One of the cops asked for his licence. Both drew their guns and aimed them at Nahel — illegally — since the rules specify that only in a case of “absolute necessity” should guns be drawn.
“Hurry up,” said one cop, “you’re going to get a bullet in your head”.
In response, Nahel started to move the car, and seconds later was shot in the chest. He died half an hour later.
One of the ambulance officers, who had known Nahel since he was a small child, came across two police officers from the same brigade a couple of hours later, and shouted at them about how furious he was. He was arrested for “contempt towards a police officer” and spent 48 hours in a police cell.
The police explained, in their official report of the shooting, that one of the officers was standing in front of the car, and that the driver attempted to run him down, so it was necessary to shoot him. This spectacularly flimsy excuse is a classic police response in such circumstances, and was faithfully repeated on all the news channels.
But there was a video. A passerby filmed the scene, including the threats and social networks made sure it could not be ignored. As a result, one police officer was arrested and is in custody, charged with murder. The second has not been arrested.
Rioting broke out in more than a dozen towns around the country on the following nights and on June 29, 650 people were arrested — mostly youth. Police stations were attacked with fireworks and many were burned. The mayor of Romainville, in the eastern suburbs of Paris said on June 30: “It was calmer than the previous night, but we did have a group of 60 people attacking the police station at two o'clock in the morning.” This happened in over a dozen towns.
Some town halls and a number of cars were set on fire. Supermarkets and other shops were sacked. In the centre of Paris, stocks were looted at Nike and Zara, as some took advantage of a situation where police were overstretched.
The murderer’s lawyer complained on TV that his client had not been allowed bail because of the riots.
News channels are now inviting parents from various poor suburbs onto the TV, along with genial sociologists. The parents are asked: “How can we avoid more cars being burned tonight?” The sociologists are asked to explain how more sport and culture could help multiethnic youth feel more integrated into society. No one seems to be asking how we can stop police from carrying out racist executions, or what sort of police training leads cops to aim a gun at you when asking for your licence. Or indeed what do do about the enormous fascist presence in the police force.
Faced with the unrest, President Emmanuel Macron was obliged to say that the killing was “unacceptable”. But he has been overseeing rising brutality in the police force for years.
In 2017, the rules of engagement were changed to encourage police to use their guns more, and the result has been a doubling of police killings. In 2022, 13 unarmed people — almost none of them white — were shot dead by police. Thirty-nine people were killed by police that year. Prosecutions are rare and convictions almost unheard of.
Right-wing politician Marine Le Pen and most of the police trade unions defend the shooter and claim he acted in self-defence. She is calling for the imposition of a state of emergency and curfews. Nazi politician Eric Zemmour, is screaming that this is the beginning of “a race war”.
Meanwhile, France Insoumise (FI) MP Clémentine Autain denounced what she called “a summary execution”. FI is demanding a parliamentary inquiry into the murder. FI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted: “The media guard dogs say we should call for calm. We call for justice!” — a statement which led to him being denounced by right-wingers as a danger to the Republic.
Macron has rushed back from Brussels to chair an emergency cabinet meeting. The authorities are afraid that the riots could spread, like they did in 2005, after two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traore, died fleeing police. The 2005 riots continued for three weeks and 233 public buildings were damaged. The ruling class was shaken and over the next few years, €50 billion were invested to improve housing and public services in 600 of the neighbourhoods involved.
Riots are complex things, and can be very hard on the local population. Committees of parents in many poor neighbourhoods and council estates are meeting urgently to see what they can do to protect their youngsters from the police, and stop the anger from hitting the wrong targets (in one or two towns, for example, schools have been set on fire).
In my neighbourhood of Montreuil, the mothers’ committee was out talking to the young people all evening.
But it would have been much worse if the cops had killed our children and there was no reaction. Without the riots, the police involved would not be in prison, and the official prosecutor would not have been obliged to publicly state that police firearms rules had not been followed.
Six thousand people joined a march in Nanterre on June 29 under the slogan “Justice for Nahel”. A good network of small organisations fighting police violence already exists, but we need a broader movement with the confidence to demand that the second police officer involved be arrested, that the police be disarmed, and that fascists be expelled from their ranks. That would be a good start.
[John Mullen is a revolutionary activist living in the Paris region and a supporter of the France Insoumise. His website is at randombolshevik.org.]