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French activists protest racism, police brutality

Updated: 2023-09-25 07:41

Protestors flee from an exploding firework on a street in Nice, south-eastern France early July 2, 2023, during the fifth night of rioting following the shooting of a teenage driver in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre on June 27. [Photo/Agencies]

PARIS — Families, community groups and activists marched in cities around France on Saturday to decry racism and police brutality, putting authorities on edge at a time when French police are deployed en masse for a string of high-security events.

Lingering anger over the killing by police of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in June was an impetus for Saturday's protests, but they included groups with disparate demands for immigrants' rights, affordable housing and economic justice. More than 100 marches were planned around France, and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin ordered special police vigilance.

Tensions briefly flared at the largely peaceful, boisterous protest in Paris. Members of the crowd smashed the windows of a bank along the march route, and police evacuated the rattled employees. At another spot, protesters surrounded a police car and an officer darted out, waving his gun.

Some 30,000 police and gendarmes were working on Saturday to keep order for a visit by Pope Francis to Marseille and at three Rugby World Cup matches, according to the interior minister's office. The security presence was also reinforced for the three-day visit of Britain's King Charles and Queen Camilla, which ended on Friday evening.

The protesters' demands include tougher rules limiting the use of firearms by police; an independent body to replace the internal agency that investigates police abuses; and massive state investment in low-income neighborhoods.

Marchers lamented what they say has been a failure to address problems exposed by the killing of Merzouk, a French-born youth of North African descent, in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. He was stopped by two officers who subsequently alleged that he had been driving dangerously, and died from a bullet through his left arm and chest. The officer who fired the shot was faced preliminary charge of voluntary homicide.

Merzouk's death unleashed violent protests in Nanterre that spread and morphed into nationwide riots. Mass police deployment quelled the mayhem, but tensions linger.

"The police kill in France. That is not new. But we have the impression that the middle classes and others outside the low-income neighborhoods are gaining awareness of repression by the state," said Belkacem Amirat, who came from the Paris suburb of Antony to march in the capital.

Justine Larnac, a law student, said: "The system of police needs to be fundamentally reformed," notably to curb police violence during arrests and traffic stops and stop racial profiling.

For Saturday's march in Paris, 1,000 officers were deployed to keep order.

Organizers of Saturday's protests included the far-left party France Unbowed and the hard-left union CGT, among the government's loudest critics. Climate activists, a farmers' collective and community groups that work to combat racism and police abuse also took part.


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