Police killing of Muslim teen sparks unrest & opens old wounds

The death of a Muslim teenager by police in France has sparked several days of widespread riots and reignited concerns about police violence and systemic racism in the country.

A police officer killed Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan heritage, during a traffic stop in the Paris suburb of Nanterre last week.

The shooting triggered consecutive nights of riots in major French cities, leading to over 1,300 arrests.  

The incident has brought back longstanding complaints from France’s poor and racially diverse urban communities about racial profiling and racism.  

President Emmanuel Macron has denied the existence of systemic racism within French law enforcement agencies.

Nahel’s mother, Mounia M, told France 5 television earlier this week about the police officer: “He saw a little, Arab-looking kid, he wanted to take his life,” she said.

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

“I lost a child of 17-year-old, they took my baby,” she added.

On Saturday, the Muslim community came together to mourn. Hundreds of people lined the streets along the route to the cemetery.

For many in the crowd, Nahel’s story felt familiar. It adds to a series of cases where minorities have either died or been injured in encounters with French police, leading to calls for greater accountability.

What happened to Nehal?

According to prosecutors, Nehal was driving a car when he was stopped by the police for breaking traffic rules. The teenager was too young to hold a full driving license in France.

Initially, the police claimed the young man had driven the car towards them. But this account was contradicted by a viral video on social media.

In the video, two police officers can be seen standing next to a car, with one officer firing a close-range shot at the teenage driver as he tried to drive away. He succumbed to his injuries shortly after.

Nehal lived with his mother and was an active rugby league player for the Nanterre Pirates.  

In a recent Facebook post, the rugby club expressed their condolences to Nahel, stating, “The Pirates of Nanterre are a family and we mourn our brother. Rest in Peace Nahel”.

The officer who shot Nahel has been put under formal investigation over voluntary homicide and is held in prison in preventive detention.

Nahel’s family’s lawyer, Yassine Bouzrou, said they want the officer to be prosecuted for murder rather than manslaughter.

Discrimination in France

The incident has fuelled grievances within law enforcement agencies.  

These concerns are raised by rights groups and communities that live in the diverse suburbs surrounding major cities in France. They claim some areas have been neglected and left behind by the authorities, allowing criminal gangs to take control.

The current unrest has brought back memories of the 2005 riots that lasted for three weeks and led to a state of emergency being declared by then-president Jacques Chirac.  

Those riots began in a suburb of Paris when two Muslim men died from electrocution while hiding from the police in a power substation.  

A decade later, the two officers involved in the incident were acquitted in a trial.


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