NANTERRE, France — Hundreds gathered on a rainy Saturday next to the Ibn Badis Mosque. The gray, modern building stands just a few blocks from where Nahel, shot dead by the police four days ago, lived.
The teen’s white coffin entered the mosque as long queues of men and women waited on both sides to pay their respects in a very tense atmosphere.
The killing of the 17-year-old unleashed days of violent demonstrations in the once quiet suburban town, reigniting long-simmering tensions between the youth and the police, accused of brutality and racial discrimination.
Amira, 39 and mother of a young boy, said she came to denounce “the violence of some police officers” and to support “the uprising” of suburban people during the last few days.
“All the mothers that you can see here — we identify with what happened to Nahel. What this police officer did was wrong. He could have shot the wheel of Nahel’s car, or his leg. … We wouldn’t see all that,” she added.
Violent outbursts that quickly spread across the country have raised the specter of riots that rocked French suburbs for weeks in 2005 after two young men died trying to escape the police. In the weeks of riots that followed, youths in the suburbs fought running battles with police. Like Nahel, the young men were from immigrant backgrounds, and their deaths fomented a sense of injustice among many.
“Nothing has changed,” said Amira, referring to the 2005 uprising.
Right next to the mosque, the public finance center has broken windows and hundreds of half-burned empty tax declarations litter the floor in front of the building. Locals are looking for a sense of unity after days of urban rioting. But some fear the cycle of protests and violence could be unstoppable.
“We know when it all began, but we don’t know when it will stop,” says Philippe, 52-year-old who has lived here for over a decade.
The night before, he saw a bus burn up in his street, leaving a new visible scar in the city already marked by days of riots and fires set by protesters at night.
Rioters have especially targeted public buildings. The city’s post office has been tagged with Nahel’s name, as have many other blocks.
Fear of far right
Despite the deployment of massive police force, violent rioting shows no sign of easing after four days.
President Emmanuel Macron on Friday called for parents to lean in and keep their children indoors, as police reported that many minors are among rioters.
“My kids are adults now, but when they were young, I never let them hang out at night like that,” says Nassira, a 64-year-old retired housekeeper and a mother of three. At the mosque, she adds that she “prays to God everyday that young people go back home” at night, as she fears the political consequences of the uprising, with a possible rise of the far right.
The perimeter of the mosque has been secured by mediators, unarmed city hall employees who aim to create conditions of dialogue with locals, instead of the police, in an effort to avoid further tensions. For the same reason, photos and videos were strongly discouraged by organizers. A French photographer was assaulted the night before by protesters in Nanterre.
In a press release, the lawyers for Nahel’s family asked journalists to stay away from the ceremony in order to avoid “media interference” at the funeral.
“Nahel’s mother is in mourning and wants to bury her son,” Abdelmadjid Benamara, one of the three lawyers, told POLITICO on Friday. “We haven’t talked with her yet about the protests, the public reactions or the political reactions.”
Despite this wish to have a “day of prayer for the family,” many locals don’t believe the funeral will suffice to calm the tensions and they fear a resurgence of clashes Saturday night.
Nahel’s death has rekindled the debate around police brutality in the country, which activists have long claimed disproportionately affects people of color and those living in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The use of ethnic statistics is strictly restricted in France, but according to a 2017 study by a French human rights watchdog, young men perceived as Black or Arab are much more likely to be stopped by police than their peers.
On Friday, Belkhir Belhaddad, an MP for Macron’s Renaissance party, called for a rethink of the country’s strict restrictions on the collection of ethnic statistics that he called a “taboo.”
“We’re unable to truly measure the extent of the damage caused by ethnic discrimination. If we can’t measure it, we can’t tackle it,” he said, adding that he had faced racism himself as an MP of Algerian descent.
Next to the Nanterre-préfecture subway stop, a tag reads “Justice for Nahel.”
Below is a half-erased quote from former French President Charles de Gaulle: “When France succeeds, all its children see their chances increase.” (“Quand la France réussit, tous ses enfants voient grandir leurs chances”).
Paul de Villepin contributed reporting.