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France rocked by riots before funeral of teenager shot by police © Reuters. A group of police officers walk as people protest following the death of Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer in Nanterre during a traffic stop, and against police violence, in Paris, France, June 30, 2023. REUTERS/Juan Medina

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By Tassilo Hummel

PARIS (Reuters) -France was reeling on Saturday from a fourth night of rioting as the family of Nahel M, whose shooting by a police officer sparked the unrest, prepared for the teenager’s funeral in the Paris suburb where he died.

The government deployed 45,000 police and several armoured vehicles overnight to tackle the worst crisis of President Emmanuel Macron’s leadership since the “Yellow Vest” protests which brought France to a standstill in late 2018.

France’s interior ministry said that 1,311 people had been arrested, compared with 875 the previous night, in violence which it said on Twitter was “lower in intensity”.

Nahel, a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was shot during a traffic stop on Tuesday in the French capital’s Nanterre suburb, where bus traffic was still halted and the area quiet on a damp Saturday morning after more rioting overnight.

A group of around 30 young men stood guard at the entrance to the funeral parlour in Nanterre, asking people not to take pictures, a Reuters witness said, adding that there was no sign of any police as mourners gathered at a nearby mosque.

“We aren’t part of the family and didn’t know Nahel but we were very moved by what has happened in our town. So we wanted to express our condolences,” one man among the group, who declined to give his name, told Reuters.

“We belong to the same community of faith,” a woman added.

Another Reuters witness said roads to the cemetery would be shut off while Nahel’s funeral took place.

The shooting of the teenager, caught on video, has reignited longstanding complaints by poor and racially mixed urban communities of police violence and racism. Macron had denied there is systemic racism inside French law enforcement agencies.

Buildings and vehicles have been torched and stores looted in the unrest, which has spread nationwide, including to cities such as Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Strasbourg and Lille.

More than 200 police officers have been injured and hundreds of rioters and have been arrested, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said, adding their average age was 17.

Friday night’s arrests included 80 people in Marseille, which is home to many people of North African descent.

Social media images showed an explosion rocking the old port area of the southern city, but authorities said they did not believe there were any casualties.

Rioters in France’s second-largest city had looted a gun store and stole hunting rifles but no ammunition, police said.

MORE TROOPS

Marseille Mayor Benoit Payan called on the government to send extra troops to tackle “pillaging and violence” in the city, where three police officers were slightly wounded early on Saturday. A police helicopter flew overhead.

In Lyon, France’s third-largest city, the police deployed armoured personnel carriers and a helicopter, while in Paris, police cleared protesters from the Place de la Concorde square on Friday night.

Darmanin had asked local authorities to halt buses and trams, while Macron urged parents to keep children at home.

“Quite simply, we’re not ruling out any hypothesis and we’ll see after tonight what the President of the Republic chooses,” Darmanin said on Friday when asked on television news whether the government could declare a state of emergency.

The unrest has revived memories of three weeks of nationwide riots in 2005 that forced then President Jacques Chirac to declare a state of emergency after the death of two young men electrocuted in a power substation as they hid from police.

Players from the national soccer team issued a rare statement calling for calm. “Violence must stop to leave way for mourning, dialogue and reconstruction,” they said on star Kylian Mbappe’s Instagram account.

Looters have ransacked dozens of shops and torched some 2,000 vehicles since the riots started.

Events including two concerts at the Stade de France on the outskirts of Paris were cancelled, while Tour de France organisers said they were ready to adapt to any situation when the cycle race enters the country on Monday from Spain.

CRISIS MEETING

Macron left a European Union summit in Brussels on Friday early to attend a second cabinet crisis meeting in two days and asked social media to remove “the most sensitive” footage of rioting and to disclose identities of users fomenting violence.

Videos on social media showed urban landscapes ablaze. A tram was set alight in the eastern city of Lyon and 12 buses gutted in a depot in Aubervilliers, northern Paris.

Darmanin met representatives from Meta, Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok. Snapchat said it had zero tolerance for content that promoted violence.

A friend of the victim’s family, Mohamed Jakoubi, who watched Nahel grow up, said the rage was fuelled by a sense of injustice after incidents of police violence against minority ethnic communities, many from former French colonies.

“We are fed up, we are French too. We are against violence, we are not scum,” he said.

Some tourists were worried, others supportive of protests as some Western governments warned citizens to be cautious.

“Racism and problems with the police and minorities is an important topic going on and it’s important to address it,” U.S. tourist Enzo Santo Domingo said in Paris.

In Geneva, the U.N. rights office emphasised the importance of peaceful assembly and urged French authorities to ensure that use of force by police was non-discriminatory. France responded by saying that any allegation of systemic discrimination among its law enforcement agencies was “totally unfounded”.

The policeman whom prosecutors say acknowledged firing a lethal shot at Nahel is in preventive custody under formal investigation for voluntary homicide, equivalent to being charged under Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions.

His lawyer, Laurent-Franck Lienard, said his client had aimed at the driver’s leg but was bumped when the car took off, causing him to shoot towards his chest. “Obviously (the officer) didn’t want to kill the driver,” Lienard said on BFM TV.

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