PARIS — Families, community groups and far-left activists marched in cities across France on Saturday to denounce racism and police brutality, putting authorities on edge at a time when French police are being deployed en masse for a series of high security events.
Lingering anger over the police killing of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk in June motivated Saturday’s protests, but they included groups with disparate demands for immigrant rights, affordable housing and economic justice. More than 100 marches were planned throughout France and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin ordered special police vigilance.
Tensions briefly flared during the largely peaceful and noisy protest in Paris. Members of the crowd smashed the windows of a bank along the march route and police evacuated shaken employees. At another location, protesters surrounded a police car and a police officer rushed out brandishing his gun.
Some 30,000 police and gendarmes were working Saturday to maintain order during Pope Francis’ visit to Marseille and during three Rugby World Cup matches, according to the interior minister’s office. Security presence was also increased for the three-day visit of Britain’s King Charles and Queen Camilla, which ended Friday evening.
The protesters’ demands include stricter rules limiting the use of firearms by police; an independent body to replace the internal agency responsible for investigating police abuse; and massive state investments in low-income neighborhoods.
Protesters deplored what they say is a failure to resolve the problems revealed by the murder of Merzouk, a young Frenchman of North African origin, in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. He was stopped by two police officers who later claimed he was driving dangerously and died after being shot in the left arm and chest. The police officer who fired the shot was charged with intentional homicide.
Merzouk’s death sparked violent protests in Nanterre that spread and turned into nationwide riots. The massive police deployment put an end to the chaos, but tensions persist.
“The police kill in France. This is not new. But we have the impression that the middle classes and others, outside of working-class neighborhoods, are becoming aware of state repression,” said Belkacem Amirat, who came from Antony in the Paris suburbs to march in the capital.
Justine Larnac, a law student, said “the police system needs to be fundamentally reformed,” particularly to reduce police violence during arrests and traffic stops and combat racial profiling.
The French government denies systemic racism or police brutality. Paris police chief Laurent Nunez defended police officers, saying Saturday on France-Info that they sometimes had to resort to “legitimate, legal and proportionate violence” to put an end to “dangerous behavior, vandalism and looting “.
For Saturday’s march in Paris, 1,000 officers were deployed to maintain order.
In Marseille, about 5,000 police officers and 1,000 private security guards were in place for the pope’s visit, along with dozens of surveillance cameras along Francis’ route. President Emmanuel Macron, after meeting the Pope on Saturday, shook hands with spectators and police officers guarding the scene.
Security measures have also been increased in the nine cities hosting the Rugby World Cup, from September 8 to October 8. 28.
Organizers of Saturday’s protests include the far-left France Insoumise party and the far-left CGT union, among Macron’s most vocal critics. Climate activists, a farmers’ collective and community groups fighting against racism and police abuse also participated.
Associated Press journalists Sylvie Corbet in Marseille, France, and Michel Euler in Paris contributed to this report.