Nahel M. was shot dead by a police officer at a traffic stop Tuesday, unleashing riots across France, with massive police deployments unable to stem the protests. Image Credit: Twitter

NANTERRE, France: He was “everything” to his mother, a quiet boy in his Paris neighbourhood, struck down by a policeman’s bullet that has sparked riots and soul searching in a country where police have long faced accusations of singling out minorities.

Nahel M. was shot dead by a police officer at a traffic stop Tuesday, unleashing riots across France, with massive police deployments unable to stem the protests.

He grew up on an estate called Pablo Picasso in Nanterre, a Parisian suburb home to many immigrants.

His mother, whose family is from Algeria - a former French colony which has contributed most of North Africa’s immigration to France - raised him alone.

When news began to spread that he had been shot and killed by police at a traffic stop while driving a rental car, his neighbourhood became an early scene of the outrage that spread across the country ahead of his funeral Saturday.

Although authorities kept quiet about Nahel’s ethnic background, France rapidly caught on.

A protester at the end of a commemoration march for Nahel on Thursday. Image Credit: AFP

Early reactions came from rap stars in Marseille, the southern port city with high immigration from northern Africa.

Football superstar Kylian Mbappe and actor Omar Sy, who are both black, also quickly tweeted their support.

Only a month ago, Nahel had a dream come true when he was selected to appear as an extra on a video clip by star rapper Jul, which he filmed in Nanterre.

After Nahel’s death, Jul made an appeal for financial help for the family of the boy he called “my little brother”.

Copy of 399751141-1688217411040
Mounia holds a flare during a demonstration in the Nanterre suburb of Paris, France, on Thursday, June 29, 2023. Image Credit: Bloomberg

‘You know how young people are’

During a tribute march in his memory Thursday, Nahel’s name became a rallying cry for thousands of people who believe that his life cut short is another example of the treatment by police of young men of Arab and African backgrounds.

“Nahel was a quiet boy,” said Saliha, a resident in his neighbourhood.

The 65-year-old said that even if Nahel had previous brushes with the law “you know how young people are at 17”.

“In what world is that a reason to kill them?”

His mother, Mounia, called her son “my best friend” and “my everything”.

She said she was “revolted” by the circumstances of his death but, unlike many here, did not attribute blanket blame on the police.

“I blame one person: the one who took the life of my son,” she said.

The 38-year-old officer who was detained and charged with voluntary manslaughter “saw an Arab face, a little kid, and wanted to take his life,” Mounia said

Nahel’s death also reverberated across the Mediterranean to Algeria, even though it is still not officially known whether he was a dual national.

Algeria’s foreign ministry expressed its “consternation” at the events, and called Nahel an Algerian “national” to whom France owed protection.

Nahel, who was also close to his maternal grandmother, earned money as a delivery man, according to the family’s lawyer.

He was also enrolled in a programme designed to help with the integration of young people from troubled neighbourhoods through sports, in his case rugby.

Nahel had no criminal record. The Nanterre prosecutor said there had been incidents of refusing to stop for police checks. He had been summoned to appear before a court for minors in September.

On Tuesday, police said he had caught their attention because of reckless driving.

Nahel had dropped out from school but was “no big-time bandit,” said Jeff Puech, president of the Ovale Citoyen where Nahel was enrolled.

“He wanted to make it.”