There were mounting fears last night of a spiral of retaliatory violence in Lille and other French cities because of the killing of a young Algerian man by a policeman on Sunday.
Sixteen cars were burnt and 70 young people arrested in the sprawling housing estates of Lille-Sud on Monday night after the shooting at point-blank range of Ryad Hamlaoui, 23, as he sat in the front passenger seat of a stolen car. The police officer who fired the shot, StÃ©phane Antolinas, has been arrested and - unusually for such cases in France - faces a possible charge of murder.
Despite appeals for calm by community leaders and the victim's family, similar incidents in the deprived inner suburbs of cities in recent years have led to several days of rioting, spilling from one city to another. Police union leaders alleged yesterday that the violence in Lille on Monday - at the end of 24 hours of relative calm after the killing - was the work of politically motivated provocateurs from outside the area.
The death of Mr Hamlaoui, who was unarmed and had never been in trouble with the police, follows an unusually peaceful winter in the French banlieues or inner suburbs. The incident, the fourth of its kind in three years, raises questions about poor training and institutional racism in the police. The location of the fatal incident could not be more embarrassing for the government. The deputy prime minister, Martine Aubry, is also deputy mayor of Lille.
The city has been used as a test-bed for the government's attempts to "reclaim" the banlieues, with the help of job creation schemes for the young and police de proximitÃ© (community policing) programmes. Mr Hamlouai was shot dead while celebrating his success in being selected for one of the community jobs for young people run by Lille town hall.
It is clear that he was involved in a minor crime at the time of his death. However, an initial police and judicial investigation has found no justification for the shooting.
Just after midnight on Saturday, a police dog patrol intercepted an Opel Corsa that had been reported stolen. The driver surrendered peacefully; Mr Hamlaoui remained in the passenger seat, a half-empty bottle of whisky at his feet. Officer Antolinas, who was standing beside the car with his gun in his hand, said later that he saw the young man make a "sudden movement". He was "afraid" and fired.
Police unions complained that political pressures - in other words, the sensitivity of Lille - had led to officer Antolinas being rapidly jailed and placed under formal investigation for "voluntary homicide" or murder. In three similar cases in the past three years, in Lyon, Toulouse and the southern suburbs of Paris, the officers have been allowed to remain free and charged with the lesser crime of manslaughter.
The public prosecutor for the Lille area, Claude Mathon, insisted that the murder investigation was justified by the facts. "The policeman shot him in the neck from close range. If you do that, you can be said to have homicidal intentions. As far as I know, the head is a vital organ." However, Mr Mathon also pointed out that the officer was "devastated" by what he had done. "Two lives have been shattered, not one," he said.
The Lille, and national, authorities had hoped that the prompt action against the officer would prevent retaliatory violence but more than a thousand youths took to the streets of the Lille-Sud housing estates, and other troubled suburbs of the city, on Monday night. Shouting "police assassins" and "Justice pour Ryad", they burnt cars and dustbins and attacked riot police with stones and Molotov cocktails.
Police unions said the violence had been fomented by "known elements" from outside the area. Local people rejected this accusation and claimed the killing of Mr Hamlaoui had been a "premeditated" act of provocation by the police.
The "proximity" policingintroduced in Lille-Sud, as a pilot for a nationwide experiment, is a mixture of community work and zero tolerance of small crimes. The idea is that no community should feel itself outside the protection of the law. The problem, as French newspapers have pointed out, is that such a scheme depends on trust between police and community, which is absent in most French inner city suburbs.
As Le Monde asked: "Why do these things keep happening in France ... when our neighbours, Britain and Germany, confronted with similar problems, do better?"Reuse content