The French Riots: What Happened?

Scott wrote here about the riots that have paralyzed France for five days. Reuters reports that thousands of rioters have been arrested, rioters have burned 2,000 vehicles, 200 police officers have been injured, and more than 700 businesses have been looted, ransacked or burned to the ground.

All of this was triggered by the death of a 17-year-old named Nahel Merzouk who was shot by a police officer following a traffic stop. But what exactly happened leading up to the shooting? And who was Nahel Merzouk? The liberal London Times has a reasonably honest account.

First, as to Mr. Merzouk:

Nahel, his family insisted in brief interviews with French media, did not have a criminal record. Like many young men growing up in the poor, racially mixed suburbs, though, he had his share of run-ins with the law, according to information that was leaked to the media within hours of the shooting.

More than a dozen such incidents have come to light, including minor drug-related offences, and driving without a licence and on false plates. The most recent was last weekend, when he had refused to stop for a police check. He was due to appear before a juvenile court in September.

Merzouk persistently refused to stop for the police, which most likely means that he was engaged in some kind of crime. This is what happened on the day when he was shot:

On Tuesday morning, after spending the night at home with his mother, Nahel was out on the road again, this time at the wheel of a high-performance Mercedes A-class AMG, driving through Nanterre, with two friends. It is not clear where he had got hold of the car, which had Polish number plates.

Note that he didn’t have a driver’s license and had a prior charge of driving with false license plates, another indication of criminal behavior.

An unmissable canary yellow, it was reportedly spotted at about 7.55am by two police motorcyclists as it was speeding along a bus lane in the Boulevard Jacques Germain Soufflot. They gave chase, putting on their flashing lights, and banging on the driver’s window when Nahel stopped at a traffic light. He drove off while the signal was still red.

So he is fleeing from police officers, a likely indication of a crime in progress, beyond the traffic offense of speeding in a bus lane. There were two other teenagers in the car with Merzouk.

The two motorcyclists continued the chase along several other roads, and at 8.16am radioed colleagues to warn them of the situation. A few moments later, the Mercedes was forced to stop after getting stuck in a traffic jam on the Boulevard de la Défense, and the two officers dismounted, drew their guns and came alongside the car.

That still wasn’t enough to get Merzouk to comply:

Moments later, one of the pair, a 38-year-old policeman, who has not been named, fired once at the teenager, hitting him in the chest. A split second earlier a voice could be heard on the video clip warning the teenager: “You are going to get a bullet in the head.”

The exact circumstances of the shooting are disputed, but it is clear that Merzouk’s vehicle lurched forward, no doubt causing the officers to think that he was fleeing once again:

Whatever the truth, there is no doubt the car travelled for a few yards before crashing into the side of the road in Place Nelson Mandela, near the préfecture, at 8.19am. Despite attempts by the policemen and the fire brigade, who arrived two minutes later, to revive Nahel, he died of his injuries at 9.15am.

Should the officer have fired? No doubt he wishes he hadn’t. He has now been charged with homicide. But what caused the incident was recklessly lawless conduct on the part of Nahel Merzouk. Contrary to what the rioters allege, it is easy to avoid being shot by French police officers.

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