Friends and family attended a private funeral at Nanterre in Paris, where Nahel Merzouk was killed on Tuesday after being stopped by two motorcycle patrol police.
A large crowd gathered outside the local mosque and followed the coffin to the cemetery, many chanting “Justice for Nahel”. Lawyers for relatives had asked journalists to stay away from the ceremony, saying it was “a day for Nahel’s family” to mourn “with discretion”.
A 38-year-old police officer has been officially put under investigation – the equivalent in France of being charged – for voluntary homicide.
French president Emmanuel Macron, who is facing the biggest challenge of his centrist government’s authority, cancelled a planned two-day visit to Germany on Sunday. The decision came after Macron faced criticism for attending an Elton John concert in Paris on Wednesday while the country burned.
On Saturday, the government held another crisis meeting after four days of increasing violence and looting that has seen official and private buildings targeted along with buses, trams, sports and leisure centres and schools.
More than 1,300 people were arrested on Friday night and early Saturday morning after more than 230 buildings, including town halls, and 1,350 vehicles were set alight, according to France’s interior ministry, who said the average age of those taken into custody was 17. Some were as young as 13.
The authorities deployed 45,000 police and gendarmes, 24 helicopters and several armoured vehicles overnight. French media relayed images of black-clad rioters carrying automatic rifles and shotguns.
On Saturday, it was announced that a specialist riot police unit would be sent to Lyons, where the mayor, Grégory Doucet, described the violence, vandalism and looting as “unprecedented”.
The killing of Nahel has sparked a radicalisation of opposing public and political positions in France. The country’s police have come under increasing criticism for their heavy-handed and occasionally fatal use of various weapons, including flashballs and rubber bullets, and accusations of endemic racism.
Nahel’s death was the third fatal shooting by police during traffic stops in France in 2023, and the 21st since 2020. Most of the victims have been of black or north African origin.
On Friday, the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) criticised French policing, saying the shooting was a “moment for the country to seriously address the deep issues of racism and racial discrimination in law enforcement”.
Nahel’s mother, Mounia, said she was angry at the officer, but not the police in general. “A police officer cannot take his gun and fire at our children, take our children’s lives,” she told French television.
While politicians sought to stop the spread of violence, France’s football team, Les Bleus, made an appeal for calm. “The time of violence must end and be replaced by a time of mourning, dialogue and reconstruction,” the national squad said in a statement by the team captain, Kylian Mbappé.
However, two of the country’s biggest police unions, Alliance and Unsa, issued an inflammatory statement describing protesters as “savage hordes” and “pests”, and warning the government: “Today the police are in combat because we are at war. Tomorrow we will be in resistance.”
Valentin Gendrot, a journalist who infiltrated the French police and described a “culture of racism and violence” in his 2020 book Flic (Cop), told the Observer one of the biggest issues was a “sense of impunity” among officers.
“The majority of police officers do the job the best they can, but there’s a minority who do whatever they like. Unfortunately, what happened in Nanterre proves nothing has changed since I wrote my book,” Gendrot said.
The arrested officer’s lawyer, Laurent-Franck Lienard, told BFMTV the police brigadier (sergeant) had never previously fired his gun on duty and had not set out to kill anyone. He said the officer’s priority had been to immobilise the vehicle “to avoid anyone else’s life being put in danger”. And he disputed claims that the officer had threatened to shoot the driver in the head before firing.
An Elysée spokesperson denied that the shooting was racially motivated, saying “nothing indicated” the police officer had opened fire “because the victim was foreign”.
“A police officer has been charged with an act, but this is not indicative of the force. It was the act of one man, not the institution as a whole,” he said, adding that the shooting was currently under investigation and did not justify the wave of violence.
“This isn’t a revolt in certain neighbourhoods – it’s about a young minority committing acts of delinquency,” he said.
On Friday, staff at the Saint Algue hairdressers in the Rue des Lumières – the street of lights – in the Paris suburb of Montreuil arrived to find the salon wrecked: plate-glass windows were smashed, cupboards and display cabinets overturned, and drawers emptied.
In the Baleo dry-cleaners next door, Evelyn Procot said she felt “heartsick” to see the devastation in the narrow street where almost all of the 30 stores had been vandalised or looted.
“I was born in Montreuil and have lived here all my life. I’ve never seen destruction like it,” Procot, 47, said. “I couldn’t even imagine this happening here. It makes me sick to the heart and the stomach.”
As workers boarded up windows and doors along the shopping precinct, butterfly-shaped wedding confetti blew along the street outside Montreuil town hall, which was also littered with the discarded boxes of perfume looted from a nearby cosmetic store.
“This has nothing to do with the death of that poor boy,” a local man in his 40s, who did not want to be named, said. “The people who did this are thieves pure and simple. They just smashed their way into these places and went shopping. These stores are not symbols of the republic.”
For many living in areas hit by the latest wave of violence, where local buses and trams used by local people to get to work have been set alight, neighbours’ cars torched, community facilities vandalised and low-cost shops looted, there is a sense – once again – that protesters are burning their own house down in a frenzy of self-destruction.
“It’s a form of self-mutilation,” said Laurent, 70, a retired scientific researcher who has lived in Montreuil for 15 years. “There are two forces at play: the understandable anger at police violence, and the wish to destroy and steal. But who benefits from all this in the end?”
On Saturday, the justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, said legal moves would be taken to force social media platforms to hand over details of those arranging the pillaging of property, with the threat of possible sanctions if they refused.
“Young people have to know we will find these accounts. This cannot go on. If you call on your friends to take part in smashing something up, that’s potentially a criminal association. If you are present at a ransacking, even if you’re not actually doing anything wrong, you are potentially taking part in a criminal association and encouraging others,” Dupond-Moretti said.
“I say to 13-17-year-olds, stay at home, and if you put things on Snapchat to organise looting you will be traced and punished.”
He added: “Parents need to control their kids … it’s not for the state to raise their children.” – Guardian