February 7, 2024


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At funeral for slain teen Nahel M near Paris, anguish, anger and racial tensions

For two hours, in a mood of anguish and anger, hundreds of members of the large French Muslim community lined up outside the Ibn Badis mosque in Nanterre to mourn a teenager, one of their own,  fatally shot by a police officer at a traffic stop..

The shooting of Nahel M took place on Tuesday, followed by four nights of violent rioting in major France cities, and nothing suggested any return to calm as the young man’s funeral unfolded. His uncle, flanked by friends and security agents employed by the mosque, yelled abuse at anyone trying to film the proceedings. There were scuffles.

The police were nowhere to be seen, after 45,000 officers had been deployed overnight to confront the tide of rage provoked by a shooting at close range not far from the mosque that was caught on video. It would have been a dangerous provocation for any uniformed French police officer to appear.

For Ahmed Djamai, 58, it was a familiar story. The police lied, he said, alluding to initial news media reports that the young man had plowed into officers. They would have gotten away with it, he said, but for the appearance of the apparently incriminating video that went viral. “The government always protects the police, a state within the state,” he said.

Tension is so high that President Emmanuel Macron announced that he would postpone a state visit to Germany that was to have begun Sunday. More than 1,300 people were arrested during a fourth night of turmoil, violence and looting on Friday.

When the mosque, a modern building with unhappy palm and olive trees in front of it, was full, about 200 men left outside formed rows on the Avenue Georges Clemenceau, laid their hats and motorbike helmets and bags and mats in front of them, and prostrated themselves. They rose to their feet and dropped to their knees as the sound of prayer rose from the mosque.

It was a vivid image of religious devotion and a reminder of the powerful presence of Islam in France, a presence that a secular and universalist democracy that prides itself on making no distinction between its citizens on the basis of religion or ethnicity has had great difficulty accommodating. The poisonous legacy of the eight-year Algerian war of independence that ended in 1962 has never been overcome.

Engraved on a school behind the long line of Muslim men who waited was the Enlightenment motto adopted by the revolutionary French Republic: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”

There was consensus in the crowd: If Nahel M, a French citizen of Algerian and Moroccan descent, had been white rather than an Arab, he would not have been killed.

There was anger at all-too-frequent slurs. “My name is Usamah,” said one young man, “so of course my high school teacher would joke that I was bin Laden. She thought it was funny.”

“When an Arab dies at the hands of the police without a video, that’s the end of the story,” said Taha Bouhafs, an activist who has been working with Nahel’s family to bring attention to the shooting. He said he is in contact with labor unions and human rights organisations in the hope of organising a general strike against racism and police violence this month.

Fatma Aouadi, 26, a digital marketer of Tunisian descent, stood outside the mosque for hours. Why? “Because Nahel was young,” she said. “Because he was an Arab. Because I live here. Because I work here.”

She said that she had not been able to stop herself thinking about something similar happening to her, and finding herself without family — her parents are in Tunisia — and at a loss. Her mother had just called with warnings to stay home and be careful. “They are afraid,” she said.

All this is a very old story in France: a story of failed integration; of the shortcomings of a social model that worked well for a long time but has been unable to resolve the problems of lost hope and poor schools in suburban areas where many immigrants live; of the tensions flaring into hatred between young Muslims and police; of government promises to restore social cohesion that are never fulfilled.

The Algerian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it had learned “with shock and consternation of the brutal and tragic death of the young Nahel and the particularly troubling and worrying circumstances in which this happened.”

Recent French government statements, after an initial expression of outrage at the shooting, have focused on the subsequent rioting, which Macron described on Friday as having “no legitimacy whatsoever.” More than 300 police officers have been injured, a handful of them seriously.

The mutual incomprehension and tensions between the French state, and the many citizens who are convinced the protests have a legitimacy founded in a pattern of police violence against minorities, was palpable in Nanterre.

“Nahel helped me carry my shopping upstairs, and I would give him some change,” said Thérèse Lorto, a nurse. “He delivered pizzas. He did some stupid adolescent stuff. But the police, they are full of hatred. It is far too easy to kill and get away with it.”

After the service, men carried a white coffin out of the mosque and placed it on a vehicle. A long procession formed behind it of cars, motorbikes and people walking. A young man wearing a “Justice for Nahel” shirt rode a motorbike on one wheel as the crowd moved toward the Mont Valérien cemetery, which only the men were allowed to enter.

Women sat outside. “It’s terrible,” said one. “Only God should give and take away lives.”