How Death Of A Teenager Brought Old Problems Back to Surface In France

The death of French teenager Nahel M, killed by a police officer during a traffic stop a week ago, has reignited the anger of young people and brought deeper problems over racism and alleged police brutality

Himalaya Times
Read Time = 3 mins

The death of French teenager Nahel M, killed by a police officer during a traffic stop a week ago, has reignited the anger of young people and brought deeper problems over racism and alleged police brutality in France back to the surface, according to residents of Paris's working-class suburbs.

On the streets of the Pablo Picasso housing estate in Nanterre where Nahel lived, the rioting since his killing has left behind burnt-out cars, melted bins and countless graffiti tags calling for "Justice for Nahel".

"It's always the same people who are targeted (by the police), blacks and Arabs, working-class neighbourhoods," said a 16-year-old boy during a protest march in tribute to Nahel on Thursday that later degenerated into clashes with police.

"They kill a 17-year-old boy like that, for nothing -- this death makes us hate," he said.

"People have had enough. There has been a build-up of anger, a feeling we've seen it all before," Mohamed, 39, told AFP a few days later sitting in a park next to the estate.

"Of course I understand that, I also grew up here. That said, burning down schools and shops is crazy because it harms us all," he added.

He said he came down from his apartment several nights in a row to "reason with the kids".

Next to him, his friend Sofiane, 38, sighed, pointing to the ash-grey skeleton of a merry-go-round that was torched on Thursday evening.

He said that he was "cut-up" about Nahel's death, but "we can't have damage like that".

He said much of the anger was about how random police stops seem to target people of colour. "We want the police to check us as if we were called 'Michel'," he said, using a traditional French name.

Fatiha Abdouni, 52, co-founder of the Voice of the Women of Pablo Picasso group, said she also came down from her building on Saturday evening to meet with neighbourhood mediators as another night of unrest loomed.

"I don't condone people smashing and burning things -- who would condone that?" she said.

However, "now we have to listen to the young people, their frustration and anger," she insisted.

Youths in Paris's deprived suburbs face "daily difficulties, unequal access to study, to work, to housing", Abdouni added.

For her it was obvious that the death of Nahel was a "spark" reigniting "deeper problems".

'Give hope to our children'

Since Nahel's death, the riots have been led by "very the young", moving in small groups and relaying their actions on social networks. On Thursday night, the average age of those arrested was just 17, according to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

This prompted Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti to say that parents must "be told again that they should keep hold of their kids".

But "it is not by pointing the finger at the parents as if they were irresponsible that we will make things move forward," said Mohamed Mechmache, an educator in Clichy-sous-Bois, the poor Paris suburb where France's 2005 riots began.

That unrest was triggered by the deaths of two teenagers of Malian and North African descent who were electrocuted while hiding from a police check in a relay station.

"It is time to speak publicly to the youth, to tell them that they are part of this Republic," he told AFP.

"The most important thing is to give hope to our children, that they believe in their future. I am afraid that there will be another death," added political scientist Fatima Ouassak, co-founder of the Mothers' Front, an organisation of parents of students from working-class areas.

At the Pablo Picasso estate, none of the young people AFP encountered on Sunday wanted to speak.

After five nights of riots, Nahel's grandmother Nadia appealed for calm.

"I tell the people who are rioting -- do not smash windows, attack schools or buses. Stop! It's the mums who are taking the bus, it's the mums who walk outside," she said.

Mohamed and Sofiane, who said they were pleased with the return to relative calm, now hope that "justice will be done".

"This policeman is a human being, he must be tried like you or me. No two-tier justice."

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