Mayor’s house attacked, firefighter dies as riots roil France | Courthouse News Service
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Mayor’s house attacked, firefighter dies as riots roil France

Hundreds of stores and public buildings were damaged, and looting was widespread, but the weekend of violence also showed signs that riots in France may be ebbing.

(CN) — France on Monday cautiously hoped for calmer days ahead after a weekend of riots rattled the country with an attack on a mayor's house outside Paris, the death of a firefighter battling a car fire, and hundreds of stores and public buildings smashed.

France has already seen six nights of violence in response to the police killing of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old food delivery driver of Algerian-Moroccan roots in a Paris suburb, last Tuesday morning.

But the violence may be ebbing with large-scale deployments of police and armored vehicles, hundreds of arrests, growing public fury at what many French see as wanton misbehavior rather than legitimate anger and protest, and calls for calm from Merzouk's grandmother and mother. Merzouk's body was laid to rest Saturday at a mosque in Nanterre.

“The people who are breaking things right now, I tell them: stop it,” the French broadcaster BFMTV quoted his grandmother, Nadia, as saying Sunday in a plea to halt the destruction of schools, buses and other public infrastructure. “They used Nahel as an excuse.”

The toll from the unrest has been devastating and reached a new dangerous point at around 1:30 a.m. Sunday when rioters attacked the home of a center-right mayor in L'Haÿ-les-Roses, a southern suburb of Paris.

Attackers used a car to ram through the home's gates before setting the vehicle on fire and letting the blaze spread to the house, Mayor Vincent Jeanbrun said in a statement.

Jeanbrun alleges that rioters attacked his wife and children, aged 5 and 7, with firework rockets when they tried to flee. One of the children was hurt, and Melanie Nowak, his wife, broke her leg. The mayor was not at home because he was monitoring the riots. Authorities said they were investigating the attack as attempted murder.

Jeanbrun called it “a murder attempt of unspeakable cowardice.”

“A line has been crossed,” he said. “If my priority today is to take care of my family, my determination to protect and serve the Republic is greater than before.”

The attack shocked France and led to a quieter night of unrest. By Monday, staff at town halls across the country came out in support of the L'Haÿ-les-Roses mayor and decried the rioters and violence.

People gather outside the city hall in Lyon, France, on July 3, 2023, in a show of solidarity with the mayor of the Paris suburb of L'Hay-les-Roses after a burning car struck his home. Unrest across France sparked by the police shooting of a 17-year-old appeared to slow on its sixth night, but still public buildings, cars and municipal trash cans were targeted nationwide by fires and vandalism overnight into Monday. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

Also Monday, France's interior ministry reported that a 24-year-old firefighter was killed while battling a car set on fire in an underground parking garage in a Paris suburb overnight. It remained unclear if the car had been set on fire by rioters, but hundreds of vehicles have been torched since protests erupted last Tuesday.

The past six days have been dizzying for France and President Emmanuel Macron, who has struggled to appear both empathetic toward the complaints of racism and inequality expressed by France's large Muslim population while also supportive of France's strained police forces and denouncing the violence.

Macron canceled a trip to Germany on Monday as his government sought to quell the unrest and take stock of the millions of dollars in damage. He was expected to hold another crisis meeting soon.

Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, said that about 3,200 people have been arrested since the start of the riots and that about 60% of those arrested had no criminal record. The average age of those detained is 17, according to French media reports.

Most major cities — Paris, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, Nice, Bordeaux, Nantes, Strasbourg and Lille — have seen destruction of public buildings, large-scale looting and street clashes as about 45,000 police officers were mobilized across the country. Protests have also broken out in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, and in Switzerland.

The riots are sparking difficult debates in France about the country's colonial past, racism, religious intolerance, police brutality, immigration, inequality and crime. France is home to the European Union's largest Muslim population, but many French Muslims complain of discrimination and lack of opportunity. Large Muslim communities live in the outskirts of French cities, places known as the banlieues.


These areas often are made up of public housing and have suffered from neglect and poverty, though large sums have been spent in recent years to improve the banlieues by investing in transportation, schools and other public services.

Still, deep-rooted problems remain and experts say France's police forces are in need of better training and reforms.

André Rakoto, a defense and security researcher at the University of Paris 8, said the two motorcycle officers involved in the Merzouk shooting made serious mistakes that highlight the need for better training.

Merzouk drove off after the two officers dismounted from their motorcycles and tried to stop him while he was stuck in traffic. The teen was driving a rented Mercedez-Benz without a proper license, French media reported. Two passengers were in the vehicle — one fled and the other was injured. The person who fled turned himself over to authorities Monday, French media reported.

Two police officers, one pointing a gun toward the window of a yellow car, question a driver in Nanterre, France, on June 27, 2023. The 17-year-old delivery driver was killed in the confrontation, spurring heightened police presence around Paris and other big cities amid scattered violence. (@Ohana_FNG via AP)

On the television news station France 24, Rakoto said witness footage of the incident clearly show the officer who fired the fatal shot acted improperly. That 38-year-old man, who's reportedly a highly decorated officer, is facing voluntary homicide charges. He has apologized and said he intended to shoot Nahel in the leg but got bumped when Nahel drove off.

In 2017, France amended its criminal enforcement laws to give officers more latitude in using firearms against vehicles to protect themselves or to prevent a vehicle from causing harm to others. Last year, 13 fatal police shootings took place during traffic stops, a sharp rise.

This legislative change, like another one that allows gendarmes to carry firearms, came in response to a series of acts of violence in France in recent years. The country has suffered tremendously from several terrorist attacks and from years of often violent protests.

While Rakoto said the officer who shot Merzouk appeared to have broken the law, he also noted police are dealing with more and more vehicles failing to comply with orders to stop.

“It's bad training and something that shouldn't have happened,” Rakoto said, speaking on "The Debate," a France 24 program.

He said French prosecutors took the right action by accusing the officer with the “highest charge possible against the police officer.”

But Rakoto refuted the notion that France's police forces practice systemic racism toward people of color and Muslims.

“I think we are facing a police man who acted badly who is not representative of the whole police force,” he said.

France's police are coming under heavy scrutiny for allegations of deep-rooted racism and treating protesters with unwarranted brutality. In recent years, police have clashed fiercely with protesters, resulting in scores of injuries on both sides.

Last Friday, the United Nations human rights office accused France of allowing racism within its police ranks. “This is a moment for the country to seriously address the deep issues of racism and discrimination in law enforcement,” said Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for U.N.'s human rights commissioner.

Critics contend that France's powerful police unions are preventing a much-needed review of police practices and institutional racism.

Rakoto said France should enact police reforms, but he said in general the country's 250,000 officers behave properly and cannot be considered “a threat to the population.”

“It is not the whole police force,” he said.

Ines Seddiki, the founder of Ghett'Up, an association that works to improve life in the banlieues, argued on France 24's "The Debate" show that racism is rife among French police and that it must be rooted out.

“People need to understand the anger of people,” she said. “People are scared of the police so they prefer to flee than be prosecuted.”

She accused police of targeting Muslims and people of color and resorting too easily to violence. Police reforms are needed to encourage police to become more engaged in the communities they patrol and to force them to rely less on weapons.

“What we need in the banlieue is real investment,” she added. “Right now, we have been plugging the leaks.”

Part of a monument commemorating Holocaust victims and members of the French resistance during World War II, a wall in the Paris suburb Nanterre was defaced with graffiti on July 2, 2023. The section here says "police, rapists, assassins." It had been vandalized three days earlier as well on the margins of a silent march to pay tribute to the teen killed by police in a traffic stop. (AP Photo/Cara Anna )

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

Follow @cainburdeau
Categories / Civil Rights, Government, International

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