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After days of violent protests against systemic racism, unrest calms in France


After six days of violent protests across dozens of cities in France, things are beginning to calm down. Last week a teenager by the name of Nahel M. was shot and killed by a police officer in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. His death set off demonstrations against what protesters consider to be systemic racism by the French police. Nahel was of North African descent. Yesterday his grandmother called for protesters to stop rioting, stop destroying. His family laid the teenager to rest at a local mosque on Saturday. We're joined now by Sebastian Roche. He is a sociologist who studies policing and race in France. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SEBASTIAN ROCHE: Good evening.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about how things have changed in the last 24 hours.

ROCHE: The situation is better in France. It was quite a strong and harsh movement. But now things have calmed down substantially, and there have been only about 150 arrests throughout the entire country, which is about 10 times less than two days ago.

SHAPIRO: French President Emmanuel Macron canceled a trip that he was scheduled to make this week. Tell us about his response.

ROCHE: Emmanuel Macron immediately responded in a very moderate way, probably because he had seen the video and the shot against the young person that was no threat to the police officer.

SHAPIRO: You're talking, just to clarify, about the video that contradicted the police officer's version of events, in which it's clear that the 17-year-old who was killed was not posing a threat to the police officer who shot him.

ROCHE: Exactly. Yes. And based on that video, he immediately took a very strong stance and said that the behavior of the police is unacceptable. And this is not something Emmanuel Macron does. He only did it once before for a young Black music producer that was beaten up by the police in his own house, but everything was recorded. So that's the only moment in France where police behavior and police violence have been strongly condemned by the president without any judicial investigation being carried out.

SHAPIRO: And as I said, protesters accuse the police of systemic racism. They say these are not isolated events. What form do those patterns of behavior take?

ROCHE: In France, there is, quite classically, I would say, two main problems with the police. One is the abuse of force, the use of excessive force. And one second issue is police discrimination, especially during stop and search. In this case, we have a simple traffic stop, and the young man ends up dead while, again, he was posing no threat to the police officer. And this has strongly resonated with other cases of police discrimination in the suburbs of Paris and other large French cities. They are mainly from Northern African descent and also sub-Saharan Africa. So these people - they used to be stopped by the police for no reason, and they used to be submitted to inquisitive search during the stop and search.

SHAPIRO: You know, in the United States, policing is so decentralized that it makes it difficult to create change on a national level. In France, policing is much more centralized. And so is there a movement for change, and do you think changes likely to happen?

ROCHE: I think decentralized systems are very difficult to change because they are decentralized, and centralized systems are very difficult to change because they are centralized. Police organizations are very strong organization. They are very well-unionized, and it's very difficult for either a mayor or a French president of the republic to govern in turbulent times without the police. Therefore, the president is extremely cautious. He has a strong, let's say, tone against this police officer that shoot the young boy, but he has also a very strong tone against the rioter that create disorder on the street. So in that respect, I'm not extremely hopeful that something will dramatically change. We lack clear policy signal from the President Macron. We lack clear policy signals that he wants to do something. He says, I'm going to listen. I am open to listening to what's happening. I'm willing to establish better relations with the youth, but at this moment, it's only a number of small phrases that have been pronounced by the president.

SHAPIRO: Sebastian Roche is a policing expert at France's National Center for Scientific Research. Thank you for your analysis.

ROCHE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
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