Shooting in France shows U.S. is not alone in struggles with racism, police brutality

Police patrol as young sit or stand nearby during a protest in Paris.
Police patrol as young people protest in Paris on Friday.
(Lewis Joly / Associated Press)
Share via

A police killing caught on video. Protests and rioting fueled by long-simmering tensions over law enforcement’s treatment of minorities. Demands for accountability.

The events in France following the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old by police in a Paris suburb are drawing parallels to the racial reckoning in the U.S. spurred
by the killings of George Floyd and other people of color at the hands of law enforcement.

Despite the differences between the countries’ cultures, police forces and communities, the shooting in France and the outcry that erupted there last week laid bare how the U.S. is not alone in its struggles with systemic racism and police brutality.


“These are things that happen when you’re French but with foreign roots. We’re not considered French, and they only look at the color of our skin, where we come from, even if we were born in France,” said Tracy Ladji, an activist with SOS Racisme. “Racism within the police kills, and way too many of them embrace far-right ideas, so ... this has to stop.”

In an editorial, the French newspaper Le Monde wrote that recent events “are reminiscent” of Floyd’s 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer that spurred months of unrest in the U.S. and internationally, including in Paris.

“This act was committed by a law enforcement officer, was filmed and broadcast almost live and involved an emblematic representative of a socially discriminated category,” the newspaper wrote.

The French teen, identified only as Nahel, was shot during a traffic stop Tuesday in the Paris suburb of Nanterre. Video showed two officers at the window of the car, one with his gun pointed at the driver. As the teen pulled forward, the officer fired once through the windshield.

Nahel’s grandmother, who was not identified by name, told Algeria’s Ennahar TV that her family has roots in the North African country.

Preliminary charges of voluntary homicide were filed against the officer accused of pulling the trigger, though that has done little to quell the rioting, which has led to hundreds of arrests. Officials have not disclosed the race of the officer.


Police shootings in France are significantly less common than in the U.S. but have been on the rise since 2017. Several experts believe that correlates with a law that loosened restrictions on when officers can deploy lethal force against drivers, implemented after a series of terrorist attacks that used vehicles.

Officers can shoot at a vehicle when the driver fails to comply with an order and when drivers’ actions are deemed likely to endanger their lives or those of others.

Unlike the U.S., France does not keep data on race and ethnicity as part of its doctrine of colorblind universalism — an approach that purports to see everyone as equal citizens.

Critics say the doctrine has masked generations of systemic racism.

“I can’t think of a country in Europe that has more long-standing or pernicious problems of police racism, brutality and impunity,” Paul Hirschfield, director of the criminal justice program at Rutgers University, said of France. Hirschfield has published papers comparing policing practices and killings in America to those in other countries.

Experts said the video of Nahel’s shooting — which appeared to contradict initial statements from police that the teen was driving toward the officer — pushed leaders to quickly condemn the killing.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the shooting “inexcusable” even before charges were filed against the officer.


That’s nothing new for Americans. Even before footage emerged of Floyd’s death under a Minneapolis officer’s knee, Americans had seen many videos of
violent police encounters, often taken by witnesses and at times contradicting the initial statements of police.

“I’ve never seen a case where the interior minister was so quick to condemn a shooting,” Hirschfield said. “In previous killings, there was unrest, but there was
no video. It changes everything.”

Police in France typically go through about 10 months of training — lengthy compared with departments in many U.S. cities but among the shortest in Europe.

However, experts said they did not believe French police receive an equivalent to the implicit bias training required of many U.S. police officers as an effort to improve policing in diverse communities — though many U.S. critics have questioned the training’s effectiveness.

France and other European countries have growing African, Arab and Asian populations.

“If you are in a country with a colonial past, it carries a stigma. And if that is painful enough that you can’t handle having that conversation about race, of course you aren’t going to have relevant training for officers,” said Tracie Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, who serves on the United Nations’ Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement.

Bertrand Cavallier, former commander of France’s national gendarmerie training school, said the country’s law enforcement should not be judged by the actions of one officer.

“This is the case of a police officer who made a mistake and didn’t have to do it. But he was arrested, and that, I think, should be a clear message concerning the will of the government,” he said.