NANTERRE, France (AP) — President Emmanuel Macron canceled an official visit to Germany on Saturday after defying a heavy police deployment following a fourth straight night of rioting and looting across France. Hundreds gathered for the burial of a 17-year-old boy whose police killing sparked unrest.
France’s interior ministry announced that in the latest night of violence, 1,311 people had been arrested across the country, where 45,000 police officers had been pushed out in a so-far unsuccessful attempt to restore order. In all, nearly 2,400 people have been arrested in the violence that broke out after the teen’s death on Tuesday.
Despite Macron’s appeal to parents to keep their children at home, protesters and rioters took to the streets of cities and towns and clashed with police. According to officials, around 2,500 places were set on fire and shops vandalised.
The violence in France was affecting Macron’s diplomatic profile. The office of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Macron called on Saturday to request the postponement of the first state visit by a French president to Germany in 23 years. Macron was scheduled to fly to Germany on Sunday evening to visit Berlin and two other German cities.
Macron’s office said he spoke to Steinmeier and, “Given the internal security situation, the President (Macron) said he wished to be in France in the coming days.”
Given the importance of French–German relations on the European political scene, the cancellation of the official visit was a clear indication of the seriousness of France’s unrest. Earlier this year, King Charles III canceled his first overseas trip as Britain’s monarch, initially planned for France, because of intense protests over Macron’s pension reform plans.
The teen, identified as Nahel, was shot during a traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre on Tuesday. The video shows two officers standing at the window of the car, one of whom points a gun at the driver. As the teen sped away, the officer fired a single shot through the windshield.
Rituals to bid farewell to Nahel began on Saturday with family and friends viewing the open casket and ended with his burial at a hilltop cemetery in that town.
At the entrance to the cemetery, with central Paris visible in the distance, hundreds of people lined the road to pay tribute to Nahel. The crowd carried his white casket over their heads and carried it to the cemetery for burial, where media were barred. Some people took away the prayer rugs folded. Prayers were offered in a mosque before the burial.
There was applause as Nahel’s mother, Mounia M, dressed in white, walked through the gate towards the tomb. Earlier in the week she told France 5 television she was angry at the officer who shot her son, but not at police in general.
He said, “He saw a small child who looked like an Arab, he wanted to kill him.” He said, “A police officer cannot take his gun and shoot at our children, cannot take the lives of our children.” Race was a taboo subject for decades in France, which is officially committed to the principle of colour-blind universalism. The family’s roots are in Algeria.
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The police officer accused of killing Nahel was initially charged with voluntary manslaughter, meaning the magistrates conducting the investigation suspect wrongdoing, but further investigation is needed before the case can be sent to trial. Nanterre prosecutor Pascal Prache said that his preliminary investigation had led him to conclude that the officer’s use of his weapon was not legally justified.
Anger over Nahel’s death erupted into violence in several major cities including Nanterre and Paris, Marseille and Lyon, and even in overseas French territories, where a 54-year-old man was shot dead in French Guiana.
Hundreds of police and firefighters have been injured, including 79 overnight casualties. Officials have not released the number of injuries to protesters.
The reaction to the killing was a powerful reminder of the persistent poverty, discrimination, unemployment and other lack of opportunities in areas around France, where many residents trace their roots to former French colonies – such as where Nahel grew up.
“The story of Nahel is that of the lighter that ignited the gas. Frustrated youth were waiting for this. We lack housing and jobs, and when we do have (jobs), our wages are very low,” said Samba Seck, a 39-year-old transport worker in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.
Clichy was the birthplace of weeks of rioting that rocked France in 2005, after two teenagers were electrocuted in an electricity substation while fleeing police. One of the boys lived in the same housing project as Sec.
Like many Clichy residents, he mourned the violence targeting his town, where the remains of a burnt-out car stood beneath his apartment building, and the town hall entrance torched in riots this week Went.
“Young people break everything, but we are already poor, we have nothing,” he said, “young people are afraid of dying at the hands of the police.”
The France national football team – which also includes international star Kylian Mbappé, a role model for many youths in disadvantaged neighborhoods where anger is rooted – pleaded for an end to the violence.
“As many of us come from working-class neighborhoods, we too share this feeling of pain and sadness over Nahel’s murder,” the players said in a statement.
In the early hours of Saturday, firefighters in Nanterre extinguished a fire started by protesters, which left the charred remains of cars scattered in the streets. In the neighboring suburb of Columbus, protesters overturned trash cans and used them for makeshift barricades.
Police said the robbers broke into a gun shop in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille in the evening and made off with weapons.
Police said buildings and businesses were also vandalized in the eastern city of Lyon.
Despite the growing crisis, Macron held off on declaring a state of emergency, an option exercised in 2005. But the government ramped up its law enforcement response with the massive deployment of police officers, some of whom were recalled from leave.
The riots have put new pressure on Macron, who has blamed social media for fueling the violence.
Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has ordered the night-time closure of all public buses and trams across the country, which have been targets of riots. He also said that he warned social networks not to allow themselves to be used as a medium for calls for violence.
“They were very cooperative,” Darmanin said, adding that French authorities were providing the platform with information in hopes of helping them identify the instigators of the violence.
The violence comes just a year before Paris and other French cities are set to host Olympic athletes and millions of spectators for the Summer Olympic Games, with organizers closely monitoring the situation as preparations for the competition continued.
Last year, thirteen people were shot dead by French police for not obeying a traffic stop. This year, three other people, including Nahel, died under similar circumstances. The deaths have prompted calls for greater accountability in France, which has also seen protests for racial justice following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
Charlton reported from Paris. Associated Press writer Jade Le Dele in Clichy-sous-Bois, France; Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon; and Geir Moulsen in Berlin contributed to this report.