Several neighborhoods in the city of Nantes in western France were set ablaze on Tuesday night by dozens of young people wielding small missiles and gasoline-filled bottles, protesting the shooting death of a 22-year-old driver. For several hours, groups wearing bandannas and hoods ran through the streets, smashing store windows and setting fire to various buildings, including a medical center and a library, radio station Europe 1 reported. As the sun rose Wednesday morning, the residents of the Breil, Malakoff and Dervallières neighborhoods woke up to find nearly 200 policemen mobilized to patrol the area and restore order.
About 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, a man identified by the French newspaper Le Monde as Aboubakar F., was pulled over by police in Breil. What happened next is not immediately clear, but police have told reporters they received orders to bring the young man into the station because his “identity was not clear,” France24 reported. Authorities later said the man was also wanted in another city for robbery and involvement in other crimes.
Aboubakar F. allegedly tried to reverse his car after he was stopped by police, hitting an officer in the knee. At this point, another officer opened fire, shooting him in the carotid artery and killing him, Le Monde reported. He was pronounced dead about 11:30 p.m., sparking violent protests across Nantes that lasted into the early morning.
Breil, Malakoff and Dervallières have been described by some local news reports as “sensitive” — an official term used by the French government to refer to areas in need of social investment, but used more colloquially by people to refer to areas they see as prone to instability or crime. These neighborhoods, which tend to see a higher percentage of minority and immigrant residents, have increasingly become a site of tension for authorities.
Last week, gunshots fired at a building in Breil accidentally injured a 16-year-old girl, prompting increased police surveillance of the neighborhood. It is still unclear who fired the shots or why. In the Tuesday evening incident, police said the officers involved were acting out of self-defense, though several witnesses at the scene dispute this.
"There was no threat, he just backed up, but there was no cop behind. I was there, I saw," said a Breil resident identified by Europe 1 as Kamel. Another Breil resident told news agency Ouest-France he knew the victim well. “He was from Paris, but he had been living here for a while. He has family. For us, it's a neighborhood child," he said.
The shooting in Nantes comes amid a growing debate around the use of firearms by French police. In February 2017, following a spate of terrorist attacks, the French parliament passed a bill expanding the boundaries that govern when police are allowed to use their firearms. In June this year, figures made public for the first time showed French police have significantly increased the rate at which they are using their weapons. From 2016 to 2017, the number of times police used their service weapons increased by 54 percent; over the same period, the number of investigations into officers accused of violence also rose from 543 cases to 576, reported the Local.
In the wake of the Nantes shooting, public officials have condemned the violent reaction from residents, but promised an independent investigation. Johanna Rolland, the mayor of Nantes who arrived in Dervallières shortly after 2 a.m., said the police and the justice system have to provide “clarity” and “total transparency” on what happened, AFP reported.
Meanwhile, early this morning, the national police union in France said while it regrets the “dramatic” death of the young man, it maintains “total support” of the officers involved.