- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Cheers erupted as a black sports car rammed a branch of Lidl on the outskirts of Nantes, western France. The vehicle reversed and sped forward once more, smashing its way through the glass facade.
As the Lidl logo came crashing to the ground, dozens of hooded youths rushed gleefully in to loot the store of its contents.
“I don’t understand why they are attacking people who work. They’re taking it out on their own population, people who have done nothing,” said one despondent local surveying the damage on Friday morning.
The sports car, no doubt stolen, remained wedged in the entrance where it had been abandoned.
Similar acts of pillaging were repeated all around France as the country teeters on the edge of total anarchy after three nights of spiralling violence and destruction, all in the wake of the police shooting of a teenager in the Paris suburb of Nanterre.
In scenes resembling guerrilla warfare, balaclava-clad elite Raid police in body armour patrolled key spots in black armoured vehicles not just in Nanterre, but also Lille in the north and Marseille down south.
With a domestic intelligence note, seen by Le Monde, warning that riots could become increasingly “widespread” and go on for “the coming nights”, Emmanuel Macron was under growing pressure to impose a state of emergency.
On Friday, the French president cut short a European Council meeting in Brussels for crisis talks as he said there were “no taboos” on the measures he would take to stop the rioting.
“All options” to restore order, including imposing a state of emergency, were on the table, confirmed Elisabeth Borne, his prime minister. That would grant authorities more powers to enact localised curfews, ban demonstrations and give police more freedom in restraining suspected rioters and searching homes.
Opposition conservatives and the hard Right are calling for such a measure. Marine Le Pen said that an emergency should be declared in “certain sectors” and be rolled out nationwide if the situation deteriorates.
“France is burning,” said Eric Ciotti, the head of the Republicains party. “Our country is on the edge of the precipice… We must wage a merciless war against violence and proclaim a state of emergency in all affected areas.”
Some ministers oppose it and Francois Hollande, Mr Macron’s Socialist predecessor, said it was the wrong move as it was designed more to manage terror threats than urban unrest.
However, French security forces have been overwhelmed since the death of 17-year-old Nahel M, shot at point-blank range by a police officer after he was pulled over for traffic offences in Nanterre. The shooting was filmed and contradicted initial police claims they acted in self-defence.
After a bruising three months battling huge protests against his pension reforms, Mr Macron had promised “100 days of appeasement, unity, ambition and action in the service of France”.
The hope was that public anger would subside in time for July 14 and its famed Bastille Day parade and firework displays.
But with just two weeks before France’s revolutionary anniversary, “appeasement” is hardly the first word that springs to mind when summing up the nation’s mood.
Outside Paris, the site of a swimming pool built for next year’s Olympics went up in flames amid loud explosions.
Nearby in Aubervilliers, a bus depot was torched with a dozen buses burned.
In Noisy-le-Grand, another Paris suburb, the local secondary school was targeted. “That’s the end of the school!” one rioter can be heard chuckling.
The violence was not limited to the banlieues, the suburbs ringing the city. Paris’s historic centre was also hit as fireworks, the acrid smell of smoke and fires peppered the streets of the City of Light on Friday night.
Social media was awash with films of raging fires and looting, as well as images of flagship branches of Nike and Zara pillaged in on the Rue de Rivoli, the Parisian equivalent of London’s Oxford Street.
The situation was equally chaotic in provincial France. In Marseille, a library was set on fire. In Roubaix, near the Belgian border, a hotel went up in flames.
After initially attacking police stations, schools and other “symbols of the Republic”, rioters have increasingly turned their attention to looting with cash dispensers rammed and restaurants, chemists, hairdressers, tax offices, tobacconists and service stations all seen as fair game.
While most attacks took place at night, on Friday afternoon scores of youths smashed windows at an Apple store in downtown Strasbourg, eastern France, in an attempt to pillage its products. Police managed to beat them back as explosions rang out.
“It’s as if we were at war,” said Marie-Therese, a resident.
In all, Mr Macron said that a total of 492 buildings were damaged, some 2,000 vehicles burned and 3,880 fires started nationwide.
Roughly 40,000 police and gendarmes, along with the elite Raid and GIGN units, were deployed in several cities overnight, curfews were issued in municipalities around Paris and bans on public gatherings in Lille and Tourcoing in the country’s north.
Despite the massive security deployment, violence and damage continued unabated in many areas. Interior ministry figures on Friday afternoon showed 875 arrests overnight, while 249 police officers were injured, none of them seriously.
With a year to go before the Paris Olympics, trigger-happy police, blazing buildings and pillaged shops are hardly the type of PR Mr Macron had hoped for as he seeks to build France’s image abroad.
On Friday, Germany expressed its “concern” over the riots and Norway advised citizens to “avoid gatherings”.
Stopping short of declaring a state of emergency, the interior ministry announced that bus and tram services would be halted nationwide at 9pm from Friday and sales of large fireworks would be banned.
Regional prefects, who are in charge of security around the country, were also asked to ban the sale and transport of petrol cans, acids and other inflammable liquids, it said.
With Britons warned about the travel restrictions, many tourists had already taken evasive action by cancelling trips.
Hotels around France are experiencing a “wave of booking cancellations in all areas affected by this damage and these clashes”, according to the UMIH, the country’s main hospitality union.
After crisis talks, the French president promised “additional means” to police over and above the huge numbers out on the streets on Friday. These will include 14 armoured Centaure vehicles belonging to the gendarmerie.
However, in an extraordinarily vitriolic critique of the government’s action so far, the Alliance Police Nationale and UNSA Police, two of France’s top police unions, appeared to suggest it had been far too lily-livered:
Marine Tondelier, the head of French Green Party, dismissed the statement a “call to civil war”. Sandrine Rousseau, a Green MP, called it a “threat of sedition”.
Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Left-wing politician, said: “The ‘unions’ that call for civil war must learn to be silent. We have seen the murderous behaviour that this kind of talk leads to. The political powers must take control of the police. Those who want calm do not throw oil on the fire!”
The Macron camp made no mention of it, but on Friday the president called on parents to keep child rioters off the streets, saying that roughly a third of those arrested overnight for rioting were “young, or very young” – between the ages of 14 and 18.
He told reporters: “It’s the responsibility of parents to keep them at home. It’s not the state’s job to act in their place.”
Mr Macron then took aim at social media providers, Snapchat and TikTok in particular, urging them to remove the “most sensitive” content related to the rioting in a “spirit of responsibility”.
He said youths used the apps to organise “violent gatherings” and graphic footage of vandalism “sparks a form of copycat violence”.
“We sometimes get the feeling that some of them live out in the street video games that have intoxicated them,” he added.
He also said authorities would request the identity of any social network users inciting violence.
In her first media interview since the shooting, Nahel’s mother, Mounia, told the France 5 channel: “I don’t blame the police. I blame one person: the one who took the life of my son.”
She said the 38-year-old officer responsible, who was detained and charged with voluntary manslaughter on Thursday, “saw an Arab face, a little kid, and wanted to take his life”.
The government is desperate to avoid a repeat of 2005 urban riots, sparked by the death of two black boys in a police chase, during which 6,000 people were arrested.
Critics argue that little has been done to improve relations with French police and address institutional racism.
In a stinging indictment, the UN rights office suggested that said this week’s killing of the teen of North African descent was “a moment for the country to seriously address the deep issues of racism and racial discrimination in law enforcement”.
The French foreign ministry dismissed the claim as “totally unfounded”.
Nahel was killed as he pulled away from police who were trying to stop him for a traffic infraction.
A video showed two police officers standing by the side of the stationary car, with one pointing a weapon at the driver.
A voice is heard saying: “You are going to get a bullet in the head.”
The police officer then appears to fire as the car abruptly drives off.
Laurent-Franck Lienard, the officer’s lawyer, told BFMTV on Thursday that his client had apologised as he was taken into custody.
“The first words he pronounced were to say sorry, and the last words he said were to say sorry to the family,” he said.
Nahel’s funeral will take place in Nanterre on Saturday.