President Emmanuel Macron has often denounced a new “incivility” in France and called for mutual respect. But the deadly shooting of a teenager of Algerian-Moroccan descent by a police officer has brought no semblance of unity as the government scrambles to contain the violent fallout from viral images of the death of Nahel M.
The broad initial denunciation of the shooting on Tuesday morning, including Mr. Macron’s description of it as “inexcusable,” has given way, as violence has mounted, to tribal expressions of allegiance, whether to a law-and-order camp or to a movement of those who see ethnic profiling and racism in a pattern of police killings or manhandling of minorities.
The fatal confrontation during a traffic stop in the western suburb of Nanterre has become a kind of Rorschach test of a divided French society. Whatever French people see in the ink blots seems to be increasingly ugly and irreconcilable.
In a statement on Friday, Alliance Police Nationale, the largest police union, denounced the “savage hordes” and “vermin” behind the burning of 2,000 cars and the looting of several stores in riots on Thursday night that led to the arrests of over 800 people. Another police union, Unsa, joined Alliance in what it said was a call to “combat” in a “war” that “the government must take account of.”
Left-wing lawmakers denounced the police statement as a call to civil war and a threat of sedition. “Those who want calm should not throw oil on the fire,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left France Unbowed movement, said.
Mr. Macron, after a second crisis cabinet meeting this week, said the violence had “no legitimacy,” was fed by social media and involved copycat violence from young people playing görüntü games that had “intoxicated” them. “It’s the responsibility of parents to keep them at home,” he said. “It’s not the state’s job to act in their place.”
The gathering protests over three nights have reflected widespread rage, especially among young people from low-income immigrant communities, at a shooting they see as reflecting endemic racism in France’s law enforcement agencies. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, announced that 45,000 police officers and gendarmes would be deployed Friday night.
“I was shocked but in the end not that much,” said Ilham Ksiyer, a 28-year-old medical student as he waited for a bus in Nanterre. “I don’t have much hope.”
Olivier Klein, the housing minister, told BFMTV on Friday that “there is this persistent resentment with a certain number of young people who feel forgotten.”
His words carried particular weight. Mr. Klein is the former mayor of the impoverished suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, where Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traoré, 15, were electrocuted in 2005 as they were pursued by the police.
Since then, 18 years of intermittent French troubles have elapsed. Poor schools, drugs, delinquency and dismal prospects in the suburbs where many French Algerians and other minorities live have fed a festering resentment that does not seem to abate, whatever the improvements state investments have brought.
“It’s blown up in my neighborhood,” said Roman Challe, aged 20, who is studying to be a roofer and said he lived near Nahel. “They shouldn’t burn schools, though, but police stations. When they burn schools it’s kids that suffer.”
The president, who is scheduled to leave for a two-day state visit to Germany on Sunday, needs to restore order fast enough to avoid a declaration of a state of emergency that would be seen as an admission that his government has lost control of the situation.
The police have been angered by the swift and indefinite detention of the officer who fired the shot and a prosecutor’s decision to place him under investigation on charges of voluntary homicide. They and several right-wing leaders have seen a rush to judgment.
“It is evident that the death of a young man can leave absolutely nobody indifferent,” declared Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party and a perennial presidential candidate. “But I am astonished that the president of the Republic does not leave the judicial system the time to do its work.”
Stéphane Séjourné, the leader of Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party, which is the largest in Parliament but does not have an absolute majority, issued a statement that appeared to reflect the resolute posture against violent protesters now adopted by the government, after its initial outrage at the shooting.
“The fault of an individual cannot equal casting dishonor and shame on 250,000 police officers and gendarmes who, every day, risk their lives to protect and serve the Republic,” he said. “I want to express my gratitude, my trust and my support at a time when 250 of them were injured last night.”
Mr. Séjouré attacked the left for refusing to condemn the violence, accusing them of fomenting hatred. But David Guiraud, a lawmaker with France Unbowed, said in a Tweet: “I do not call for calm, I call for justice. The people who live in troubled neighborhoods know. They know that without the görüntü, the police would have lied, and nothing would have happened.”
There were 13 fatal shootings during traffic stops in 2022, the highest number recorded in a single year, but so far none has led to any convictions.
Mr. Macron’s office disputed the notion that the violence was the direct result of widespread social anger.
“These are not neighborhoods that were abandoned and that are rising up,” said an official from the French presidency, who in keeping with French rules could not be publicly identified. “The residents of these neighborhoods are the first victims” of violence caused by a minority, the official said.
Mr. Macron’s office pointed to his policies that aim to reduce inequalities — like splitting up overcrowded classes in schools in disenfranchised neighborhoods, which his government did during his first term, or guaranteeing that middle schools in those areas stay open later to help struggling students, a promise that he made just this week in Marseille.
But, the official acknowledged, “We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Nahel, a fan of rap and motorbikes, was raised alone by his mother in Nanterre. He had a few minor run-ins with the police involving reckless driving and failure to comply with traffic stops, but had recently joined an association called “Ovale Citoyen” that helps youths from difficult backgrounds through involvement in sport — in this case rugby.
“For me, Nahel was an example of a kid from an underprivileged neighborhood, unschooled, sometimes borderline but in no way a big-time bandit, who really wanted to make his way,” Jeff Puech, the president of the association, told the Sud Ouest daily.
For Mr. Macron, Nahel’s death has come at an awkward moment. As a wave of protests against his decision to raise the retirement age began to die down in April, he promised that within 100 days he would galvanize France through a series of measures, including tax cuts for the middle class and massive investment in vocational schools. Those 100 days will be up on July 14, Bastille Day, the French national holiday.
Perhaps France’s divisions are now just too deep, and the resentment toward Mr. Macron from those left behind in France too acute, for healing to be possible. When the president tried this week, even before the shooting, to tell people in La Busserine, a poor northern suburb of Marseille, about his revival program for the city, some shouted him down.
Aurelien Breeden and Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reporting from Paris.
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