OPINION: Paris riots could spiral into nationwide violence as seen in 2005

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Paris riots could spiral into nationwide violence as seen in 2005
Police in riot gear stand next to a fire burning in the street in Nanterre on Tuesday evening. Photo by Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP

For anyone who remembers the banlieue riots of 2005, there is a grim familiarity about the violence which exploded in Nanterre and other Paris suburbs on Tuesday night, writes John Lichfield.


A teenage boy is shot dead by a policeman; the policeman then lies about what happened; cars and buildings are set ablaze in the boy’s neighbourhood; copy-cat violence spreads though other multi-racial suburbs as far away as Bordeaux and Marseille.

In 2005 the riots continued for three weeks, reaching almost every large or middle-sized town in France. There are reasons to fear that the same will happen again.

READ ALSO Paris suburbs rocked by riots after teenager killed by police

Nahel M, the 17-year-old boy shot dead at the wheel of a yellow Mercedes after refusing to obey a police order, was not yet born at the time of the 2005 riots. A new generation of suburban youth has grown up in France with many of the same frustrations and failures as the 2005 generation. Relations with the police are as poisonous as ever (with faults on both sides).


But there are also reasons to hope that the spiral of riots will be less prolonged this time. In 2005, the government, and especially its interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, persisted for weeks in lying about the circumstances in which police chased two innocent boys to their deaths in an electricity sub-station.

On this occasion, the government - confronted with a damning video clip of events circulating on social media - has admitted that there is evidence that a motorcycle cop shot Nahel M at point-blank range without justification. The policeman has been arrested.

The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, described the mobile phone footage as “extremely shocking”. He said that it appeared to show “no justification” for the traffic cop’s use of his revolver.

The policeman and a colleague had initially claimed that the yellow Mercedes was trying to run them down after refusing an order to stop. The clip shows that they were standing beside the driver’s window when the car started to move slowly away.

Darmanin, who is usually slow to criticise the police, evidently has the events of 2005 in mind. He appealed for calm while the “truth” of what happened is established by the justice system.

Other politicians - especially on the Far Left and Far Right - appear determined to throw fuel onto the flames. The hard left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon called for the dissolution of the national police force. Clémentine Autain, hard-left deputy for Seine-Saint Denis, a racially disparate area of the Paris suburbs, described the incident as a “summary execution.”

Philippe Ballard, far-right deputy for the Oise, attacked left-wing politicians who “often defend these little scum-bags but never think about their victims.” Eric Ciotti, leader of the centre-right, Les Républicains, suggested that the shooting might have been justified. “Refusal to obey a police order can place life in danger. A car is also a weapon,” he said,


Suburban youth is more likely to heed Kylian Mbappé, a child of the Paris banlieue and the greatest French footballer of his generation. He said that he felt “sick for my France”. The dead boy was, he said, “an angel who has left us too soon.”


“Angel” may be pushing it. Nahel M had been in trouble with police before for driving without a licence. But he had no criminal record and was described by neighbours as a “sweet boy”. He was the only son of a single mother.

The circumstances leading to his death are puzzling. How did he come to be driving a bright yellow rented Mercedes? Why were the motorcycle traffic cops so wound up about a banal traffic violation? One of the policemen is heard on the video clip saying: “You’re going to get a bullet in the head if you’re not careful.”

Relations between police and suburban youth are appalling. That has not changed since 2005. In France, the least experienced officers often end up policing the most difficult areas. That has not changed either.

Some left-wing politicians accused the French police of being systematically racist. Systematically? Perhaps not. But there is substantial evidence of racist attitudes in the Police Nationale. That has not changed much in the last 18 years either.


What has changed is the number of incidents of police shooting motorists who refuse to stop when ordered to do so (le refus d’obtempérer).

There were 13 deaths last year – a new record – of drivers who were shot by police for failing to halt their cars. Five police officers were placed under examination for manslaughter.

The number of such incidents boomed, and then fell back, after the internal police code was changed in 2017 to specify when officers are allowed to shoot drivers. They can, in theory, only do so when their own lives, or those of others, are threatened.

Some police tell researchers that their colleagues have interpreted these guidelines very broadly. Others say that the figures are misleading.

There has been a 50 percent increase in the last decade in the number of incidents of motorists refusing to stop for police. The number of shootings has also increased but proportionally less than refusals to pull over.

The official figures on such shootings are opaque because they include all occasions in which police shot at moving cars (which is not the same thing).

Why are so many more French motorists determined to avoid police scrutiny? There has been a boom in recent years in the number of uninsured drivers. The deduction of driving-licence points for speeding and other traffic offences make motorists keener to flee police checks.

None of that begins to explain the shooting dead of 13 motorists in one year – including five incidents in which police officers face prosecution.

Whatever the facts of the Nahel M case, it is time for the French state to reconsider its policing of the multi-racial banlieues but also the interface between armed traffic cops and an almost entirely unarmed car-driving population.


Comments (2)

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

steve woodhead 2023/06/28 18:43
I think journalism should be neutral, please wait until all the facts are on the table rather than stir things up. This article is loaded against law and order and is purely a reflection of what its author feels.
steve woodhead 2023/06/28 18:43
I think journalism should be neutral, please wait until all the facts are on the table rather than stir things up. This article is loaded against law and order and is purely a reflection of what its author feels.

See Also