Unrest in French Suburbs: Teen’s Death Ignites Outrage and Police Reform Demands

by Madison Thomas
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police reform

A 17-year-old’s tragic death near Paris has sparked widespread chaos in French suburbs, with protestors resorting to burning cars, buildings, and garbage in their anger.

This incident has also reignited concerns about France’s progress since the urban riots of 2005.

The fatal shooting of Nahel, captured on video, has sent shockwaves throughout the country. It has brought long-standing tensions between law enforcement and disadvantaged youth in marginalized neighborhoods to the forefront, triggering calls for a comprehensive reassessment of police weapon regulations.


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Instances where individuals have been killed by police after refusing to comply with orders have been on the rise. In 2021 alone, police data indicates that four such incidents occurred.


In the aftermath of Nahel’s death, Yael Braun-Pivet, the president of France’s lower house of parliament, expressed readiness to reevaluate the implementation of the law governing police firearm use.

This law was enacted in 2017 following a series of extremist attacks in France. It grants law enforcement officers the authority to open fire on a vehicle if the driver fails to comply with an order and poses a threat to their lives or the lives of others.

The officer responsible for firing the fatal shot in Nahel’s case will face investigation for voluntary homicide, as the initial inquiry concluded that the “legal conditions for weapon use were not met.”

Prior to this law, police officers had to establish self-defense as a justification for firearm use. Since its implementation, they have been permitted to shoot at a vehicle “whose occupants are likely to perpetrate, in their flight, attacks on their life or physical integrity or that of others.”

However, the internal security code stipulates that the use of weapons should be authorized only in cases of “absolute necessity” and in a “strictly proportionate manner.”

Researchers Sebastian Roché, Paul le Derff, and Simon Varaine, who have conducted statistical analyses linking the increase in fatal police shootings to the law, have also questioned the adequacy of police training.

Roché told Le Nouvel Obs media, “There is a clear correlation between the 2017 law change and the rise in fatal police shootings. On average, there has been a 25% increase in shootings and a fivefold increase in lethal shootings. Since 2017, there has been a noticeable shift in police practices towards more frequent use of firearms.”


In addition to the deadly shootings, French police have faced consistent criticism for their aggressive tactics.

During the yellow vest protests of 2018, a prominent European official condemned French authorities for their handling of the prolonged anti-government demonstrations, urging them to exhibit greater respect for human rights.

French police also faced severe scrutiny for their handling of the 2022 Champions League final held at the Stade de France, located in the Saint-Denis suburb. Tear gas was deployed on fans who endured long waits in congested lines, leading to a delay of approximately 40 minutes.

More recently, during demonstrations against the proposed increase in the retirement age, French police faced accusations of excessive force. Organizations such as Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe have criticized the use of force by French police.


The current unrest in French suburbs following Nahel’s death is not without precedent.

In 2005, the electrocutions of Zyed Benna, 17, and Bouna Traore, 15, as they sought refuge from the police in a power substation in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois, sparked three weeks of riots across France.

These nationwide riots swept through housing projects in troubled neighborhoods with significant minority populations. Although the initial trigger was the deaths of the two teenagers, the underlying causes were rooted in issues of discrimination, unemployment, and a sense of alienation from French society.


Nearly two decades later, these problems and the sentiment of injustice continue to be deeply entrenched in French society. However, the response to the riots may differ this time.

Unlike in 2005, the availability of video evidence and the rapid spread of information through social media have accelerated the outrage. French President Emmanuel Macron has been careful not to exacerbate tensions and has refrained from taking actions that might lead to a violent outburst, in contrast to the French government’s heavy-handed response during the previous riots under a state-of-emergency law.

Macron initially described Nahel’s death as “inexcusable.” The video evidence made it difficult for him and his ministers to argue that the shooting was justified. During the initial two nights of riots, police officers exhibited restraint in their use of force. Additionally, the decision to charge the main suspect with voluntary homicide and keep him in custody may contribute to calming tensions.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about police reform

What sparked the recent unrest in French suburbs?

The recent unrest in French suburbs was sparked by the fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old named Nahel near Paris. The incident, captured on video, ignited widespread anger and protests.

What are the main concerns raised by the incident?

The incident has raised concerns about police tactics and their interactions with young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It has also prompted calls for a thorough reform of the regulations governing the use of weapons by the police.

What changes were made to the law governing police firearm use in France?

In 2017, a law was enacted in France that allowed law enforcement officers to shoot at a vehicle if the driver fails to comply with an order and poses a threat to their lives or the lives of others. This change in the law has been linked to an increase in fatal police shootings.

How has the use of force by French police been criticized in the past?

French police have faced criticism for their handling of various situations, including the yellow vest protests in 2018 and the 2022 Champions League final. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the Council of Europe have accused French police of excessive use of force.

Are there any similarities between the current unrest and the riots in 2005?

Both the current unrest and the 2005 riots were triggered by the deaths of teenagers in police-related incidents. The underlying issues of discrimination, unemployment, and a sense of alienation from French society have also been cited as contributing factors in both cases.

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