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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Unrest in France eases nearly a week after fatal police shooting

“Revenge for Nahel” is written in a park in Nanterre, France, the Paris suburb where Nahel Merzouk, a teenager, was killed last week by a police officer during a traffic stop.

By Aurelien Breeden

The violent protests and unrest that spread across France after the fatal police shooting of a teenager last week diminished significantly overnight, authorities said Monday.

Still, as a reminder that tensions remained high, French mayors organized peaceful gatherings across the country to protest violent attacks on elected officials. And the issues underlying the explosion of anger — especially a deep-seated mistrust of the police in France’s poorer urban suburbs — appeared far from resolved.

Nearly 160 people were arrested and three law enforcement officers were injured overnight, the Interior Ministry said Monday morning, far fewer than in previous days, when as many as 1,300 people were taken into custody.

“When you arrest 3,200 people, when the courts put people on trial, when you put on a show of republican force — a fair order, but an order, nonetheless — I think that has largely contributed to this return to calm,” Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, told reporters in Reims on Monday.

Fewer episodes were reported across the country, after authorities deployed 45,000 police officers and gendarmes for the third night in a row in an effort to bring the situation under control. The same number will deployed on Monday night, Darmanin said.

Nearly a week of violence was set off by the fatal police shooting of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old French citizen of North African descent, during a traffic stop last Tuesday morning in Nanterre, a Paris suburb.

The officer who fired the shot has not been publicly identified. He was quickly placed under formal investigation on charges of voluntary homicide and detained — a rare step in cases involving police officers.

But Merzouk’s killing unleashed a burst of frustration and violence that has underlined stark divisions in French society — some of which were on plain display through dueling online fundraising efforts.

One fund, set up by a far-right commentator and former spokesperson for Éric Zemmour, a far-right presidential candidate, to support the police officer’s family, had raised over 1.1 million euros, about $1.2 million, by Monday evening. The other, set up anonymously to help Merzouk’s family, had raised over 235,000 euros, about $256,000, at that same time.

French officials have said the violence was carried out by a minority motivated by something other than justice for Merzouk and wider concerns about their treatment at the hands of the authorities.

“When you loot a Foot Locker, a Lacoste store or a Sephora boutique, there is no political message,” Olivier Véran, the French government spokesperson, said on Sunday, listing stores that had been looted.

While their exact numbers are hard to estimate, rioters have burned thousands of cars, attacked hundreds of buildings — including police stations, schools, businesses and town halls — looted supermarkets and stores, and clashed night after night for nearly a week with the police in cities across the country.

Many residents of France’s poorer urban suburbs have condemned the violence but have also said that they understood the anger that fueled the unrest, which morphed from an outburst of rage concentrated in the Paris suburbs into a broader wave of violence.

“We are afraid of the police,” said Nassima Seddini, 24, a resident of Clichy-sous-Bois, the northeastern suburb of Paris where two teenagers running from the police were electrocuted in 2005 after they hid in an electrical substation, provoking weeks of violent protests in the country.

Seddini and friends with her in Clichy-sous-Bois on Monday all condemned the violence, calling it useless. But they said that little had changed since 2005 and that repeated police checks and mishandling of minorities were still commonplace.

“It only happens to Black, Arab and Muslim people, and that’s been the case for a while,” she said.

Two passengers were in the car with Merzouk when he was killed. One has already been questioned by the police and released. The other fled the scene but was questioned by investigators as a witness on Monday, according to the prosecutor’s office in Nanterre.

Mayors and their constituents had gathered peacefully in front of dozens of town halls in the country to protest the violence. President Emmanuel Macron is also expected to meet on Tuesday with the mayors of over 200 municipalities hit by the unrest.

Near Tours, rioters tried to set a mayor’s car on fire, while in Charly, a town south of Lyon, a flaming torch was placed in front of the mayor’s home.

There were broader concerns that mayors, already the first to face discontent when state services are rolled back, are increasingly becoming targets of physical violence. Most recently, a mayor attracted nationwide attention after he resigned because of an arson attack on his home and threats from the far-right over the opening of a refugee center in his town.

“What we want today is a civic awakening,” David Lisnard, the mayor of Cannes and the head of the Association of Mayors of France, said Monday in front of his town hall.

A weekend attack on the home of Vincent Jeanbrun, the mayor of L’Haÿ-les-Roses, a usually quiet town of about 30,000 inhabitants in the southern suburbs of Paris, resonated throughout the country.

Early Sunday, as Jeanbrun was monitoring the situation at his office, assailants rammed a car into his home with the intention of setting it on fire, according to local prosecutors, who have opened an attempted-murder investigation.

The mayor’s wife fled through the back garden with the couple’s children, injuring her leg in the process.

The French government and politicians from across the spectrum have rallied to support Jeanbrun, who was joined on Monday by dozens of elected officials wearing blue, white and red stashes — many of them members, like him, of the conservative Republican party — for a march in L’Haÿ-les-Roses.

“Enough is enough,” Jeanbrun said in a speech after the march, as the crowd clapped and echoed his words.

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