According to a policeman who witnessed the death on Tuesday, Pascal Compain, an inspecteur, the equivalent of sergeant, threatened Nakome M'Bowole, 17, who was of Zairean origin, with his service revolver during questioning for shoplifting. A shot was fired accidentally, hitting the young man in the head, according to this account.
Even displaying arms once a suspect is in detention is illegal in France and police unions were quick to condemn the behaviour of the officer. He was put in custody pending an internal inquiry and charges. Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister, appealed to police to 'demonstrate control'. He said all serious professional faults in the police would be punished.
As news spread through the 18th arrondissement around Pigalle and Montmartre, a district that holds the 1992 record for petty theft, youths pelted police with stones, prompting them to fire tear-gas back. A police spokesman said at least 27 officers were injured.
The fact that the shooting was taken up by anti-racist organisations such as SOS-Racisme was certain to bring unwelcome publicity to a police force in a part of Paris that has been in the vanguard of round-ups since the new government, under Edouard Balladur the Gaullist Prime Minister, was appointed on 30 March.
Part of the government's programme - on which it was elected by a landslide on 28 March - was to increase security and reduce the problems of poor, often immigrant-dominated areas. At the last cabinet meeting with his Socialist government two weeks ago, President Francois Mitterrand, who has two years of his term still to serve, said he feared violent police repression under the conservatives.
Dealing with the poor areas is generally recognised as needing a carrot- and-stick policy, combining tougher policing with efforts to correct the social problems that encourage crime. Mr Pasqua, who developed a hardline reputation during an earlier stint as Interior Minister under the last, left- right cohabitation government between 1986 and 1988, is in charge of the first part of the problem while the centrist Simone Veil, whose ministry includes urban affairs, has the more delicate social mission.
Over the past week, police in the Barbes district of the 18th arrondissement have checked the documents of around 1,000 people in operations to catch drug-dealers. About 10 per cent of those checked were found to be illegal immigrants and are likely to be deported.
Tuesday's death was the second accidental killing by police this month. An 18-year-old Frenchman suspected of stealing tyres was killed by a bullet from a policeman's gun in the Savoy town of Chambery at the weekend. Again the policeman said it was an accident but in that case, the gun went off during and not after an arrest.
Police in Montpellier were able to report a success yesterday. They said a suspect had confessed to the murder of Jacques Roseau, a leader of the pied noir community (former North African settlers), who was shot dead in the city on 5 March. Two others confessed to complicity in the killing and have been charged.
They named the detained man as Gerald Huntz, another pied noir who had belonged to the extremist Organisation de l'Armee Secrete, or OAS. The secret terrorist organisation opposed De Gaulle's decision to give Algeria independence 30 years ago and plotted to assassinate him on several occasions. Roseau, the spokesman for the pied noir organisation Recours-France, was reviled by the far right for seeking contacts with modern Algeria and for his close links with the Gaullist RPR party.Reuse content