The killing of Nahel M: when racist policing is the rule, not the exception
03 July 2023
The killing of Nahel Merzouk sparked street insurrections across cities in France, and put a spotlight on endemic racism with the French police force. This was far from an isolated incident – police killings at traffic stops in France have risen sharply, and most victims are people of colour. Similarly, in those European countries where Roma constitutes the largest ethnic minority, they are the targets of systemic and often lethal police brutality and racism. When it comes to policing, there are clear similarities between the oppression faced by Black and Arab communities in France, and that experienced by Roma in Europe. Racist policing is a Europe-wide problem that demands an EU-wide response.
The five nights of rioting across France following the fatal point-blank shooting of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk by police is a reflection of the rage of a disaffected generation at racist law enforcement. The police killing of the teenager of North-African descent in the western Paris suburb of Nanterre is shockingly similar to the December 2022 killing of the 16-year-old Romani boy, Kostas Fragoulis in Greece. Kostas was gunned down by police as he fled a gas station in Thessaloniki, accused of failing to pay for €20 worth of petrol. Demonstrations and riots broke out in a number of Greek cities, including Athens, where protestors who clashed with police chanted: "It wasn't the petrol, it wasn't the money, the cops shot because he was Roma."
One year earlier, Greek police shot dead an 18-year-old Romani youth Nikos Sabanis, and seriously wounded another teenager in a car chase outside Athens. Between 30 and 40 shots were fired by as many as seven police officers. The police press release after the incident claimed all of the officers sustained injuries, that the deceased was 20 and had a criminal record, and that the minor who was shot only had light injuries. These claims were all later proven to be false – no police officers were injured, the victim was 18 and had a clean record, and the 16-year-old was seriously injured. Audio recordings revealed that the officers were aware that the occupants of the vehicle were Roma.
"Don't move or I'll put a bullet in your head"
In the suburb of Nanterre, the witness account and video footage contradicted the officer’s version that Nahel presented a threat to himself, his colleague or someone else. Nahel’s friend who was a passenger in the car alleged an officer approached the window of the car and told Nahel to lower it before saying: "Cut the engine or I'll shoot you." He alleged the officer then struck Nahel with the butt of his gun, then the second officer arrived and also hit Nahel with the butt of his weapon. He said the first officer then put a gun to Nahel's head and said: "Don't move or I'll put a bullet in your head"; and that the second officer said: "Shoot him." The first officer then stuck Nahel again with the butt of the gun, which the passenger claimed caused him to release his foot from the brake pedal and making the car move forward, the second officer then fired his weapon.
This was the third fatal shooting by police during traffic stops in France in 2023, following a record 13 such killings in 2022. Most of the victims have been of black or Arab origin and to date garnered little media attention. This time, the killing of the boy was captured on video, and what followed has shaken France to its foundations. The spontaneous insurrections on the streets forced President Macron to return early from an EU summit in Brussels to chair a series of national crisis meetings. His first denunciation of the shooting as ‘inexcusable’ quickly gave way to calls for parents to keep their kids at home, and the risible claim by Macron that teenagers ‘intoxicated’ from playing video games were responsible for much of the violence. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne called the violence “intolerable and inexcusable” and reaffirmed her support for police and firefighters who were “bravely carrying out their duties.”
The office of the UN high commissioner for human rights (OHCHR) stated that the shooting was a “moment for the country to seriously address the deep issues of racism and racial discrimination in law enforcement”. The same day, the largest police union, Alliance Police Nationale, denounced the “savage hordes” and “vermin” behind the disorders, and another police union, Unsa, joined Alliance in what it said was a call to “combat” in a “war” that “the government must take account of.” It would seem that the moment for those who rule, to get serious about tackling police racism in France, will be a long time coming.
Europe’s reckoning with racial injustice long overdue
Back in June 2020, in response to the wave of racial justice protests across EU capitals, the European Parliament passed a resolution on 19 June, which “strongly condemned the appalling death of George Floyd” and called on the US authorities to address structural racism and inequalities. The resolution also included a call on EU institutions and the member states “to officially acknowledge past injustices and crimes against humanity committed against black people, people of colour and Roma.” In November 2020, the EU launched its Union of equality: EU anti-racism action plan 2020-2025. Helena Dalli, Commissioner for Equality, described the action plan as an acknowledgment “that racism is not only perpetrated by individuals but is also structural” and stressed the need to address racism at all levels of governance, including law enforcement, “to turn the tide”.
The tide didn’t turn, and the police forces in many member states are not for turning. Neither did the killing of the young Romani man Stanislav Tomáš under the knee of a ‘restraining’ Czech police officer in the town of Teplice in June 2021, prompt a wake-up call for European and national authorities to get serious about tackling racist policing, rights abuses and justice denied for Roma and other minorities. The official denials and the Prime Minister’s disparagement of the victim as somebody who was not ‘normal or respectable’, followed by the dismissal of all charges against the officers, and wider public indifference, suggested that Europe’s reckoning with racial justice remains a long way off.
The evidence gathered in ERRC’s report, Brutal and Bigoted on police violence against Roma in the EU, suggests that all too often there is impunity for law enforcement concerning crimes against Roma. Beyond the blather about ‘bad apples’, the report demonstrates that law enforcement agencies are saturated with institutional racism. The case files cited in this report comprise a catalogue of official lies and botched investigations, testimonies of excessive, arbitrary, and sometimes lethal violence against young and old, deliberate attempts to discredit and intimidate victims, and protracted struggles through the courts for remedy, where justice for Roma is often denied and always delayed.
As Guardian of the Treaties, the EU needs to act to protect racialised minorities against member states’ abuses of fundamental rights. The Union already possesses extensive powers across sovereign borders to establish cooperation amongst the police and authorities competent for prevention, detection, and investigation of criminal offences in all member states, and it continues to expand the exercise of cross-border policing powers. But what is missing is a tranche of complementary obligations to safeguard the rights and protect the lives of ethnic minority citizens across the Union from racist policing. It is time to remedy this deficit. We need a binding Charter for Common Basic Standards that enshrines rights-compliant, non-discriminatory, anti-racist policing across the Union.