France’s mayors called on the public and elected officials on Monday to hold rallies opposing nearly a week of violent protests, even as the first signs emerged that the unrest was beginning to ease.
The government has battled riots and looting since 17-year-old Nahel M. was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop on Tuesday, reviving longstanding accusations of racism against the French police force.
During a sixth consecutive night of rioting, a fireman died while seeking to douse burning vehicles north of Paris but there was no immediate indication of a connection with the violent protests, the interior ministry said.
The call for a “mobilisation of citizens for a return to republican order” came after the home of the mayor of a Paris suburb was rammed with a flaming car, prompting widespread outrage.
In a statement, an association of the country’s mayors noted that areas “everywhere in France are the scene of serious unrest, which targets republican symbols with extreme violence”.
Seeking to quell what has become one of the biggest challenges to President Emmanuel Macron since he took office in 2017, the interior ministry again deployed 45,000 police and gendarmes nationwide overnight Sunday to Monday, the same figure as the previous two nights.
Overnight 157 people were arrested in relation to the unrest nationwide, according to the interior ministry — a fraction of the number taken into custody the night before. Three police officers were alo wounded.
The attack on the home of Vincent Jeanbrun, the conservative mayor of L’Hay-les-Roses outside Paris, in which assailants rammed a burning car into his home with the aim of setting it on fire, was condemned across the spectrum including by the hard left.
Jeanbrun’s wife and children, aged five and seven, were at home, while the mayor himself was at the town hall to deal with the riots.
His wife was “badly injured”, sustaining a broken leg, according to prosecutors, who have since opened an attempted murder investigation.
“There is no doubt that they wanted to burn the house” and, when “they realised that there was someone inside, far from stopping, they set off a broadside of fireworks mortars,” Jeanbrun told TF1 late Sunday.
“I never would have imagined that my family would be threatened with death,” he added.
Meanwhile, the 24-year-old fireman died fighting the fire in an underground car park in the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis north of the capital, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
“An investigation is underway” to determine the circumstances of the vehicle fires, the interior ministry added.
Darmanin did not explicitly refer to the rioting as a cause of the fires and it was not immediately clear if there was a direct link with the violence.
Transport Minister Clement Beaune added: “My thoughts go out to the public servants mobilised day and night for a return to calm.”
A police source, who asked not to be named, indicated there was likely no link: “It would be going too far. Likely this is not the case, it is not an area affected by urban violence.”
On Sunday, the grandmother of Nahel, who was of Algerian origin, had called for calm, saying that rioters were only using his death as a “pretext”.
“Stop and do not riot,” Nahel’s grandmother, Nadia, told BFM television in a telephone interview.
“I tell the people who are rioting this: Do not smash windows, attack schools or buses. Stop! It’s the mums who are taking the bus, it’s the mums who walk outside.”
The protests present a fresh crisis for Macron, who had been hoping to press on with pledges for his second term after seeing off months of demonstrations that erupted in January over raising the retirement age.
Meeting key ministers late Sunday, Macron gave an order to “begin meticulous and longer-term work to understand in depth the reasons that led to these events,” a presidential official said, asking not to be named.
He will meet the heads of the two chambers of parliament on Monday, and the mayors of more than 220 towns hit by the unrest on Tuesday, the Elysee said.
The latest unrest has raised concerns abroad, with France hosting the Rugby World Cup in the autumn and the Paris Olympic Games in the summer of 2024.
Macron postponed a state visit to Germany that had been scheduled to begin on Sunday in an indication of the gravity of the situation at home.
A 38-year-old policeman has been charged with voluntary homicide over Nahel’s death and has been remanded in custody.