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Hundreds gather to mourn Nahel M., a teenager whose death sparked protests in France

A crowd gathers in front of the Ibn Badis mosque where mourners gathered to pay respects Saturday in Nanterre, France.
Rebecca Rosman
A crowd gathers in front of the Ibn Badis mosque where mourners gathered to pay respects Saturday in Nanterre, France.

NANTERRE, FRANCE — After four nights of anger and unrest, it was time for a community to mourn one of their own.

Hundreds gathered in the western suburb of Nanterre on Saturday to pay their final respects to Nahel M., a 17-year-old teenager who was fatally shot by a police officer after being stopped for a traffic violation.

The teenager's death has sparked protests and riots across the country — more than 1,300 people were arrested on Friday evening alone.

But for residents in Nanterre, the working-class suburb of Paris where Nahel M. lived and died, the incident felt more personal.

"It's different when it happens in your town," said Charine Ahmed, a 19-year-old student who told NPR she knew the victim.

"He was a super happy boy, someone who was always smiling. I never caught him in a bad mood."

The mood outside the Ibn Badis mosque on Saturday, where hundreds came to mourn, was solemn but tense.

No police were present, but there was plenty of security.

Dozens of mediators, who act as liaisons between the community and local officials, were hired to keep order and stop anyone from filming or taking photos. The mosque became so filled that at one point some 300 mourners spilled out into the street where they participated in a public prayer of mourning.

"Try and put yourself in the place of this boy's mother," pleaded Catherine, a Nanterre resident who didn't want to give her last name out of concern for her safety. "I just can't imagine ... he could have been any of our children."

So who was Nahel M.?

A woman pays her respects at the site where Nahel M. died, shortly after his funeral, on Saturday in Nanterre, France.
Sam Tarling / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A woman pays her respects at the site where Nahel M. died, shortly after his funeral, on Saturday in Nanterre, France.

Friends and family members described him as an upbeat kid who had a passion for rugby and was excited about his training to become an electrician.

He was very close with his mom, Mounia, a single parent with only one child.

He also had some run-ins with the law and was known to the police — but as locals stressed — didn't have a criminal record.

Some said they were disappointed by several politicians on the right and far-right, who they felt had seized on the moment to try to tarnish the boy's image.

"It's like Nahel was killed twice," said Nordine Iznasni, a community activist who has been a staple of Nanterre for decades. "First, with a bullet, then a second time with a smear to his reputation."

There was little discussion about the week's unrest.

The remains of a burned out vehicle in Nanterre, France.
/ Rebecca Rosman
/
Rebecca Rosman
The remains of a burned out vehicle in Nanterre, France.

Despite a morning cleanup of the city, displays of the destruction were still on display. Multiple shops and cafés showed missing or shattered windows, layers of melted plastic (what were once garbage cans) caked the streets, and then there were the remnants of multiple cars that had been burnt to a crisp.

The French government has deployed 45,000 police across the country to maintain order and French President Emmanuel Macron has canceled a state visit to Germany as the country braces for more unrest.

The government also put out a specific order urging young people to stay at home. Gérald Darmanin, France's interior minister, said the average age of those arrested on Thursday was 17 — some were as young as 13.

The majority of people NPR spoke to in Nanterre condemned any violence.

"But we understand why our children are mad," said Catherine. "They can't help but think: What if it's one of us next?"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Rosman