A multistorey apartment block has gone up in flames in what witnesses are claiming is an attack by angry protesters responding to the police killing of a teenager in France.
Firefighters rushed to the scene in the commune of Villeurbanne, northeast Lyon, and dozens of families were forced to evacuate the apartment block after the fire “ravaged four floors”, according to one eyewitness.
Protests following the police shooting of 17-year-old Nael M have spread beyond the French capital, where the incident took place, on Wednesday night (June 28) and into Thursday morning despite increased security efforts and the president’s calls for calm.
Footage of the fire showed multiple storeys engulfed in flames and a family, who presumably lived in the apartment block, huddling together outside the building.
It is just the latest incident of destruction in response to the shocking killing of a teenage boy shot at point-blank range by a police officer after being pulled over at a traffic stop.
The killing of 17-year-old Nael on Tuesday during a traffic check in Nanterre, captured on video, angered the country and stirred up long-simmering tensions between young people and police in housing projects and other disadvantaged neighbourhoods around France.
Clashes first erupted on Tuesday night in Nanterre, a town west of Paris, and nearby, and the government deployed 2,000 police to maintain order on Wednesday.
But violence resumed after night fell, and police and firefighters struggled to contain protesters and extinguish numerous blazes.
The national police service on Thursday reported fires or skirmishes in multiple cities overnight, from Toulouse in the south to Lille in the north, though the nexus of tensions was Nanterre and other Paris suburbs.
Paris police announced 35 arrests and scores of others were reported around the country. The number of injured was not immediately released.
Multiple vehicles were set ablaze in Nanterre and protesters shot fireworks and threw stones at police, who fired repeated volleys of tear gas.
Flames shot out of three stories of a building, and a blaze was reported at an electrical plant. Fire damaged the town hall of the Paris suburb of L’Ile-Saint-Denis, not far from France’s national stadium and the headquarters of the Paris 2024 Olympics.
The police officer accused of the killing is in custody on suspicion of manslaughter and could face preliminary charges as soon as Thursday, according to the Nanterre prosecutor’s office.
Nael’s mother called for a silent march on Thursday in his honour in the square where he was killed.
French activists renewed calls to tackle what they see as systemic police abuse, particularly in neighbourhoods like the one where Nael lived, where many residents struggle with poverty and racial or class discrimination. Government officials condemned the killing and sought to distance themselves from the police officer’s actions.
President Emmanuel Macron called the killing “inexplicable and inexcusable” and called for calm. “Nothing justifies the death of a young person,” he told reporters in Marseille.
Videos of the incident shared online show two police officers leaning into the driver-side window of a yellow car before the vehicle pulls away as one officer fires into the window. The videos show the car later crashed into a post nearby.
The victim, who was driving the car, was wounded by a gunshot and died at the scene, the prosecutor’s office said.
Bouquets of orange and yellow roses now mark the site of the shooting, on Nanterre’s Nelson Mandela Square.