Riots in France Ease After Massive Police Deployment

Street unrest eased in France overnight after nearly a week of riots and looting touched off by a police officer’s killing of a teenager that underscored serious tensions in the country’s ethnically mixed suburban neighborhoods.

(Bloomberg) — Street unrest eased in France overnight after nearly a week of riots and looting touched off by a police officer’s killing of a teenager that underscored serious tensions in the country’s ethnically mixed suburban neighborhoods.

While the violence has ebbed, the shooting of Nahel, a 17-year-old of North African descent, remains a flashpoint in a crisis over racism and inequality in France that’s drawing comparisons with America’s reaction to the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

The number of arrests dropped to 157 overnight, according to government figures, down from more than 700 the previous night and 1,300 the night before that. 

“We have to remain cautious,” Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said on France Inter radio when asked about the unrest.

France has kept some 45,000 police, as well as special forces and armored vehicles deployed to contain clashes that have left hundreds of public buildings and shops damaged or ransacked in cities including Paris, Marseille, Lyon and Strasbourg.

French President Emmanuel Macron is meeting the heads of the Senate and the National Assembly on Monday and will see some 220 French mayors on Tuesday to discuss the situation. 

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Monday that the average age of the 3,200 people arrested was 17 and said some as young as 12 had been setting fires. About 60% of those arrested had no previous run-ins with the police. 

“We all need to ask ourselves about the responsibility of families, parents, because it’s not up to the police, or even mayors or the state to solve the problem when a child of 12 sets fire to a school,” Darmanin said while touring the city of Reims. 

The unrest is another political minefield for Macron after he pushed through an increase in France’s retirement age that was preceded by months of strikes and protests. Images of riot police once again battling in the streets further tarnish the country’s reputation, potentially adding to the economic toll just as the government faces pressure to restore public finances.

“What Macron needs to do is develop substantive policies to address the problems faced by these youths,” Vivien A. Schmidt, a professor of European integration at Boston University, said by email. “Unfortunately, however, it is not clear that he even recognizes the problem.”

The boy’s grandmother appealed for calm on Sunday, telling BFM TV that rioters were using his death on June 27 as a “pretext.”

French government spokesman Olivier Veran said “there is no political message” in ransacking a store during the night. “I don’t call these scenes of looting a movement,” he told France Inter radio. 

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The rioting, mostly by youths from working-class neighborhoods, is once again laying bare divisions in French society. Some of the most violent clashes happened in the port city of Marseille.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on Saturday noted damage to about a dozen shopping malls and more than 700 supermarkets, banks and stores, some of which were reduced to rubble. Nearing the height of the summer tourist season, countries including the UK have put in place travel warnings for France.

The French opposition at both ends of the political spectrum has seized on the crisis as evidence that the government is failing to ensure public safety and narrow economic disparity. 

Politicians including far-right leader Marine Le Pen have rallied to condemn one attack in particular — the ramming of a burning car into the home of the mayor of L’Hay-les-Roses, a Paris suburb. Stephane Hardouin, a public prosecutor, said authorities were investigating “attempted murder” after the mayor’s partner and two young children escaped the house through a back door.

Labor unrest and street demonstrations happen regularly in France but have taken on a more intense and confrontational tone in recent years, reflecting divisions within French society. Before the pension protests and the pandemic, the so-called Yellow Vest movement already caused widespread property damage. 

The nationwide unrest prompted Macron to postpone a rare state visit by a French president to Germany, where Chancellor Olaf Scholz called images of the clashes “very dispiriting” on Sunday. 

Nahel, whose last name has been withheld by authorities, was buried Saturday in Nanterre, his hometown where he was shot at close range in a car. The officer who fired the gun has been charged with murder and is in pre-trial detention. Laurent-Franck Lienard, a lawyer for the officer, told Europe 1 radio that the policeman believed he needed to shoot. 

–With assistance from Max Reyes, Iain Rogers and Jenny Che.

(Updates with arrest data in the seventh paragraph.)

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