French president urges parents to keep teens at home as government orders buses to stop at 9 p.m.

The interior minister ordered a nationwide nighttime shutdown of all public buses and trams, which were among the targets of three consecutive nights of urban unrest.
Youths clash with police forces on the third night of protests sparked by the fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old driver in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, France. (Photo |AP)
Youths clash with police forces on the third night of protests sparked by the fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old driver in the Paris suburb of Nanterre, France. (Photo |AP)

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron urged parents Friday to keep teenagers at home and blamed social media for fueling rioting that has spread dramatically across France following the fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old driver.

In the face of a growing crisis that hundreds of arrests and massive police deployments have failed to quell, Macron held off on declaring a state of emergency, an option that was used in similar circumstances in 2005. Instead, his government ratcheted up a law enforcement response that has resulted in 875 arrests.

The interior minister ordered a nationwide nighttime shutdown of all public buses and trams, which were among the targets of three consecutive nights of urban unrest. Macron also zeroed in on social media platforms that have relayed dramatic images of cars and buildings being torched and other acts of violence.

Social networks are playing a “considerable role” in the violence, the French leader said. Singling out Snapchat and TikTok by name, he said the platforms were being used to organize unrest and serving as conduits for copycat violence.

Macron said his government would work with technology companies to establish procedures for “the removal of the most sensitive content.” He did not specify the content he had in mind but said, “I expect a spirit of responsibility from these platforms.”

French authorities also plan to request, when “useful,” the identities "of those who use these social networks to call for disorder or exacerbate the violence,” the president said.

The police shooting of the 17-year-old, who only has been identified by his first name, Nahel, was captured on video. The boy's death has shocked France and stirred up long-simmering tensions between police and young people in housing projects and disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

Macron said a third of the individuals arrested Thursday night were “young people, sometimes very young," and that “it's the parents' responsibility” to keep their children at home.

“We sometimes have the feeling that some of them are living out, in the streets, the video games that have intoxicated them,” he said of rioters.

Since a police officer shot and killed a teenager on Tuesday in the northwestern Paris suburb of Nanterre, rioters have erected barricades, lit fires and shot fireworks at police, who responded with tear gas, water cannons and stun grenades. Police said at least 200 officers have been injured.

Macron’s government has deployed 40,000 officers to restore order and make arrests over behaviour he described as “unacceptable and unjustifiable.” He stopped short of announcing a state of emergency, a tactic used in 2005 to quell rioting after the accidental deaths of two boys while they fled police.

This week's unrest comes just over a year before Paris and other French cities rattled by violence are due to host 10,500 Olympians and millions of visitors for the Summer Olympic Games. The Paris 2024 organizing committee said it was closely monitoring the situation and that preparations for the Olympics continued.

Nanterre prosecutor Pascal Prache said officers tried to pull Nahel over because he looked so young and was driving a Mercedes with Polish license plates in a bus lane. He allegedly ran a red light to avoid being stopped and then got stuck in traffic.

The police officer accused of pulling the trigger was handed a preliminary charge of voluntary homicide after Prache said his initial investigation led him to conclude that the officer’s use of his weapon wasn’t legally justified. Preliminary charges mean investigating magistrates strongly suspect wrongdoing but need to investigate more before sending a case to trial.

The officer said he feared he and his colleague or someone else could be hit by the car as Nahel attempted to flee, according to the prosecutor.

France's national police agency said nearly half of the 875 people who have been detained were from the Paris region. There were riots in dozens of towns and cities across France, and the unrest extended as far as Belgium’s capital, Brussels, where about a dozen people were detained and several fires were brought under control.

In several Paris neighbourhoods, groups of people hurled firecrackers at security forces. The police station in the city's 12th district was attacked, while some shops were looted along Rivoli Street, near the Louvre museum, and at the Forum des Halles, the largest shopping mall in central Paris.

Armoured police vehicles rammed through the charred remains of cars that had been flipped and set ablaze in Nanterre.

In the Mediterranean port city of Marseille, police sought to disperse violent groups in the city centre, regional authorities said.

Despite repeated government appeals for calm and stiffer policing, there were even brazen attacks during daylight hours Friday. An Apple store was looted in the eastern city of Strasbourg, where police fired tear gas, and the windows of a fast-food outlet were smashed in a Paris-area shopping mall, where officers also repelled people who sought to break into a shuttered store, authorities said.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Friday denounced what he called a night of “rare violence.” His office described a large number of arrests as part of an overall government effort to be “extremely firm” with rioters.

Along with ordering buses and trams to stop running at 9 p.m., the minister also ordered bans on the sale and carrying of powerful fireworks and banned sales of canisters of gasoline, acids, and other chemicals and flammable liquids.

Snapchat allows users to send messages, pictures, videos or other messages that typically disappear after they’re viewed by the recipient. Users can also share content on their “stories” that automatically delete after 24 hours.

Snapchat spokesperson Rachel Racusen said the company has increased its moderation since Tuesday to detect and act on content related to the rioting in France.

“Violence has devastating consequences, and we have zero tolerance for content that promotes or incites hatred or violent behaviour on any part of Snapchat,” Racusen said. “We proactively moderate this type of content and when we find it, we remove it and take appropriate action. We do allow content that is factually reporting on the situation.”

The detained police officer’s lawyer, speaking on French TV channel BFMTV, said the officer was sorry and “devastated.” The officer did what he thought was necessary at the moment, attorney Laurent-Franck Lienard told the news outlet.

“He doesn’t get up in the morning to kill people,” Lienard said of the officer, whose name has not been released under French practice in criminal cases. “He really didn’t want to kill.”

Nahel’s mother, identified as Mounia M., told France 5 television that she was angry at the officer who killed her only child but not at the police in general. “He saw a little Arab-looking kid, he wanted to take his life,” she said, adding that justice should be “very firm.”

“A police officer cannot take his gun and fire at our children, take our children’s lives,” she said.

Nahel’s grandmother, who was not identified by name, told Algerian television Ennahar TV that her family has roots in Algeria. Algeria’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a statement Thursday that the family's grief was widely shared in the North African country.

Nahel's burial is scheduled for Saturday, according to Nanterre Mayor Patrick Jarry, who said France needs to “push for changes” in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

“There’s a feeling of injustice in many residents’ minds, whether it’s about school achievement, getting a job, access to culture, housing and other life issues,” Jarry said. “I believe we are in that moment when we need to face the urgency (of the situation).”

Deadly use of firearms is less common in France than in the United States, although 13 people who didn't comply with traffic stops were fatally shot by French police last year. This year, another three people, including Nahel, died under similar circumstances. The deaths have prompted demands for more accountability in France, which also saw racial justice protests after George Floyd’s killing by police in Minnesota.

Race was a taboo topic for decades in France, which is officially committed to a doctrine of colourblind universalism. In the wake of Nahel’s killing, French anti-racism activists renewed complaints about police behaviour in general.

The U.N. human rights office said it was concerned by the teen's killing and the subsequent violence, and urged the swift investigation of allegations of authorities' disproportionate use of force to quell the unrest.

“This is a moment for the country to seriously address the deep issues of racism and racial discrimination in law enforcement,” spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani told reporters in Geneva.

Shamdasani said the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination expressed concern in December about “the frequent use of identity checks, discriminatory stops, the application of criminal fixed fines imposed by the police or law enforcement agencies, that they said disproportionately targets members of certain minority groups.”

This week's protests echoed the three weeks of rioting in 2005 that followed the deaths of 15-year-old Bouna Traoré and 17-year-old Zyed Benna, who were electrocuted while hiding from police in a power substation in Clichy-sous-Bois.

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