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Protests in France were sparked after police shot to death a teen in Nanterre

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The grandmother of the teenager whose death has sparked days of unrest across France is appealing for calm. Her 17-year-old grandson, Nahel, was fatally shot by a police officer last week in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. His death ignited a wave of anger and anarchy across the country. Protesters consider the fatal shooting a symptom of what many, including the United Nations, regard as systemic racism and brutality of the French police. Rebecca Rosman reports from Nanterre.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: This has been the soundtrack of France for the past six nights as a wave of anger and violence has rippled across the country in response to the death of a young man. It was here, in this working-class suburb of Nanterre, where it all started. On Tuesday, Nahel, a teenager of North African descent, was stopped by two police officers after running a red light. One of them shot him in the chest. He was pronounced dead less than an hour later. The entire incident was captured on video. On Saturday, hundreds gathered in the middle of a spacious boulevard facing the Ibn Badis Mosque in Nanterre for his funeral. The crowd grew louder, and cars honked their horns as the white casket was placed into a hearse.

CHERINE AHMED: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "He was a super happy kid, always smiling," says 19-year-old Cherine Ahmed, who, like many in Nanterre, tells me she knew Nahel personally. That's when her voice gets political.

AHMED: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "The police are supposed to be here to protect us, not kill us," she says, adding that, while she doesn't want to generalize, she's never felt like she could trust them. Police were notably absent from the weekend's funeral service, despite the large crowds and even a few scuffles. Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist and social activist who has spent decades calling out what she sees as a culture of impunity within France's police force.

ROKHAYA DIALLO: What I can tell is that many of them know that they could have been Nahel.

ROSMAN: She tells me she's been speaking to a number of young people in the area.

DIALLO: Many of them have already had so many negative interactions with the police, like being routinely checked for no reasons, being abused verbally or physically at a very young age.

ROSMAN: And that may be why so many minors have been at the center of recent unrest. According to France's Interior Ministry, the average age of those arrested is only 17 years old. Some are as young as 13. Nordine Iznasni is a community activist who has been living in Nanterre for decades. Like many, he condemns the violence but says young people have a right to be heard.

NORDINE IZNASNI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "This is a generation that is telling the police, I'm sorry, but you cannot treat us this way," he says. "We are saying you cannot make us miserable because we will look you in the eyes and call you out."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: French President Emmanuel Macron said that the teenager's death was inexcusable and unexplainable, but his government has stopped short of acknowledging systematic racism and discrimination within the police force. In broader French society, these issues are often considered taboo subjects. Rokhaya Diallo says although she believes the officer who shot Nahel will be sentenced, not much will change beyond that.

DIALLO: The system will not be questioned in itself. So it's very easy to make an example out of him. But the problem is not that person.

ROSMAN: The problem, she says, is that it happens all the time, and the government still isn't getting the message. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Nanterre.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Rosman