By Layli Foroudi and Charlotte Van Campenhout
PARIS (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – France’s interior minister said on Friday the next few hours would be decisive, as he sent 45,000 police onto the street after three nights of rioting since an officer killed a teenager at a checkpoint in a popular suburb Paris.
The violence, in which buildings and vehicles were torched and shops looted, plunged President Emmanuel Macron into his worst leadership crisis since the Yellow Vest protests that began in 2018.
The riots flared nationwide, including in cities including Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Strasbourg and Lille, as well as in Paris, where Nahel M., a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan ancestry, was shot dead in the suburb of Nanterre on Tuesday.
His death, which was captured on video, has reignited long-standing complaints from poor, mixed-race urban communities against police violence and racism.
In the southern city center of Marseille, France’s second-largest city, rioters looted a gun shop on Friday evening and stole some hunting rifles but no ammunition, Marseille police said. One individual was arrested with a shotgun likely from the store, police said. The shop was now manned by the police.
Authorities earlier banned demonstrations in the city set for Friday and encouraged restaurants to close outdoor areas early. They said public transport would stop at 7pm
Police said they arrested 80 people. Two policemen were slightly injured. A police helicopter flew over them.
“The next few hours will be decisive and I know I can count on your impeccable efforts,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin wrote to firefighters and police officers, trying to quell the riots that broke out after dark.
He called on local authorities to halt bus and tram traffic from 21:00 (19:00 GMT) across France and later said 45,000 police force officers would be deployed on Friday evening, 5,000 more than on Thursday.
Asked on TF1’s main evening news whether the government could declare a state of emergency, Darmanin said: “Quite simply, we are not ruling out any hypothesis and we will see after tonight what the president of the republic chooses.”
More than 200 policemen were injured on Thursday night and more than 900 people were arrested, Darmanin said, adding that their average age was 17.
While the worst violence so far has been confined mainly to urban suburbs, any sign of it spreading to the centers of France’s major cities would signal a significant escalation.
Police began clearing protesters from Paris’ iconic central square, Place de la Concorde, on Friday evening after an impromptu demonstration.
Looters looted shops including an Apple store in Strasbourg on Friday, a local official said. A source told RockedBuzz via Reuters that several Casino supermarkets were also looted.
At the Chatelet Les Halles shopping center in central Paris, a Nike shoe store was broken into and several people were arrested after shop windows were smashed along the adjacent Rue de Rivoli shopping street, he said police.
Events including two concerts at the Stade de France on the outskirts of the capital have been cancelled. Tour de France organizers said they are ready to adapt to any situation when the race enters the country on Monday after starting in the Spanish city of Bilbao.
Macron left an EU summit in Brussels early to attend a second government crisis meeting in two days.
He called for social media to remove the “most sensitive” footage of the riots and to reveal the identities of users fomenting the violence. Darmanin met with representatives from Meta, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. Snapchat said it has zero tolerance for content that promotes violence.
A friend of the victim’s family, Mohamed Jakoubi, who watched Nahel grow up, said the anger was fueled by a sense of injustice following incidents of police violence against minority ethnic communities, many in France’s former colonies.
“We are fed up, we are French too. We are against violence, we are not scum,” he said.
Macron denies that there is systemic racism within law enforcement.
Social media videos showed cityscapes on fire. A tram was set on fire in the eastern city of Lyon and 12 buses gutted at a depot in Aubervilliers, north of Paris.
In Nanterre, on the outskirts of the capital, protesters set fire to cars, barricaded streets and fired live ammunition at police overnight into Friday following an earlier peaceful vigil.
The energy minister said several employees of the energy distribution company Enedis were injured by stones during the clashes. The interior ministry said 79 police posts were attacked overnight, as well as 119 public buildings, including 34 town halls and 28 schools.
Some tourists were concerned, others sympathetic to the protesters.
“Racism and the problems with the police and minorities are an important topic and it is important to address it,” US tourist Enzo Santo Domingo said in Paris.
Some Western governments have warned citizens to be cautious.
In Geneva, the UN Rights Office stressed the importance of a peaceful assembly and urged the French authorities to ensure that the use of force by the police is non-discriminatory.
“This is the time for the country to seriously address the deep-seated issues of racism and racial discrimination in law enforcement,” spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said.
The policeman who prosecutors say acknowledged firing a lethal shot at the teenager is in custody under formal investigation for voluntary manslaughter – equivalent to being charged under Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions.
His lawyer, Laurent-Franck Lienard, said his client had aimed for the driver’s leg but was struck as the car took off, causing him to be shot in the chest. “Obviously (the officer) didn’t want to kill the driver,” Lienard said on BFM TV.
The riots revived memories of three weeks of nationwide riots in 2005 that forced then-President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency following the deaths of two young men who were electrocuted at an electricity substation while hiding from police.
(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon, Tassilo Hummel, Sudip Kar-Gupta, Marc Leras, Jean-Stephane Brosse, Benoit Van Overstraeten, Pascal Rossignol, Elizabeth Pineau, Marc Leras, Layli Foroudi, Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber of Mimosa Spencer and Charlotte Van Campenhout at Amsterdam; Screenplay by John Stonestreet, Alison Williams and Sandra Maler; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Andrew Cawthorne and Dan Wallis)