France Funnels Hundreds Arrested in Riots Through Hasty Trials

The clerks were on strike in the Nanterre courthouse, so the accused burglars, homeless thieves and domestic abusers had to wait. It was 5 p.m. by the time Yanis Linize was ushered into the courtroom, a few blocks from the traffic circle where young Nahel Merzouk was shot by a policeman just a week ago, setting off protests across the country.

A bike courier from a southern suburb of Paris, Mr. Linize was swept up in the anger and emotion that erupted over the death, and the widespread perception that racial discrimination had played a role in it.

He faced charges of issuing death threats to police and of promoting damage to public property.

“I was angry because of everything that is happening,” Mr. Linize, 20, told the panel of three black-robed judges before him. “Someone died. That’s serious.”

After five nights of fury over Mr. Merzouk’s killing, the country has calmed down and begun to assess the damage: more than 5,000 vehicles burned, 1,000 buildings damaged or looted, 250 police stations or gendarmeries attacked, more than 700 officers injured.

Some 3,400 people were arrested as a massive police presence set out to restore order.

The justice system is running almost around the clock to process them. Many are being funneled through hasty trials, known as comparutions immédiates, where prosecutors and court-appointed lawyers traditionally churn through simple crimes like traffic violations, theft or assault, often when the accused is caught in the act.

After flooding the streets with 45,000 officers night after night, the French state is looking to send a second harsh message. Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti advised prosecutors to systematically seek prison sentences for people charged with physical assault or serious vandalism.

“Very clearly, I want a firm hand,” Mr. Dupond-Moretti told France Inter radio on Monday.

The court in Nanterre, the Paris suburb where Mr. Merzouk lived and died, held special sessions over the weekend. All sorts of people have appeared: paramedics, restaurant employees, factory workers, students and unemployed people.

The majority of those arrested, according to French authorities, had no prior criminal record. And most are minors: the average age is 17, with some as young as 12. They go to a specialized court where the process is slower and prison is seen as a last resort.

With comparutions immediates, justice is routinely as harsh as it is quick: Lawyers often have just 30 minutes to prepare, and cases often end in prison time. In theory, the accused have an option to delay the hearing to better prepare with court-appointed lawyers, but few take it, mostly because they would be waiting in jail.

Squeezed in among robberies and domestic violence, the trials go fast. Mr. Linize’s lasted less than two hours.

He appeared in a glass defendant box, wearing a blue vest zipped up to his chin, his long brown hair falling neatly around his face, and his hands folded politely behind his back.

Police arrested him for chanting “Justice for Nahel, we will kill you all.” He told the court he was shouting “Justice for Nahel, no more deaths.” Nearly three years ago he was convicted of assaulting a police officer, and had been working to pay off a 10,000 euro ($11,000) fine since then — a heavy lift, given that he earns just €1,500 a month. He lives with his parents.

After his arrest, police accessed his phone and found videos he had made. The judge read out messages from the private Snapchat stories that Mr. Linize shared with 20 friends.

In one, he offers cash to people who can provide him with mortar tubes to launch fireworks — which were the main weapons used by protesters to fight police. In a video he posted at 3:25 a.m., he is holding a gas canister and saying, “I am going to burn everything in the housing project.”

But all of it is posture, he maintained, saying he didn’t burn, smash or steal anything. “All that, it’s just words,” he told the judges. “I’m just saying what passes through my mind.”

President Emmanuel Macron has blamed social media — Snapchat and TikTok in particular — for accelerating the violent response to the teenager’s shooting, by enabling rioters to quickly coordinate and by fueling copycat behavior. Experts say its effect is one notable difference from 2005, when France was rocked by three weeks of riots after the deaths of two teenagers who were fleeing a police check. Back then, smartphones and social media barely existed.

The lead judge read out several of the messages Mr. Linize shared, declaring he planned to “fight the police this evening” and damage everything.

“You wanted to scare the state,” the judge said. “You said nothing resulted from the messages you sent, but you’re not in control of that.”

Mr. Linize’s court-appointed criminal lawyer, Camilla Quendolo, worked on cases through the weekend. One common denominator she saw was the shock at the teenager’s death among many protesters, some of whom even knew the victim.

“The message from the prosecutor’s office has been very clear, very precise and systematic. But on the bench, it has really depended on the judge,” said Ms. Quendolo, who spends 30 percent of her time working as a public defender.

“It’s a good and bad thing,” she added. “They aren’t robots, which is good, but at the same time, it creates a disparity between people.”

In court, she reminded the judges that her client had no dangerous items on him at the time of arrest — “no weapon, no fireworks, nothing.” His words were simply political, she said.

Many in the small courtroom, filled with friends and families of those arrested, applauded.

“These penalties are too heavy for young people,” said Issa Sonke, 23, a security worker who was at the trial to support a friend. “They didn’t hurt anyone,” he said, standing by the coffee machine down the courthouse hall.

Mr. Sonke, who is from a neighboring immigrant-packed suburb, said that “every one of us grew up witnessing police violence,” adding: “We’ve all seen the police smack our friends.”

Mr. Merzouk’s killing has tapped into the long-festering resentment of racism among many French minorities, and rekindled a long, painful debate about racial profiling by police — a pernicious phenomenon that has been demonstrated in many studies, but that is fiercely dismissed by police unions.

In 2016, France’s Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that some identity checks carried out by the police had indeed been discriminatory, motivated only by the “real or supposed origin” of the young men who were stopped. It found that this was “serious misconduct” on the part of the state. While the government has made some changes, including introducing body cameras for some officers, it has not called into question the general practice of identity checks.

A group of organizations including Amnesty International filed a class-action suit against the government in 2021, calling for a clearer legal basis for I.D. stops, among other changes. The case is expected to start shortly.

On Monday, the president’s office reiterated its view that discrimination or racism did not play a part in the traffic stop that ended in Mr. Merzouk’s death. Linda Kebbab, a spokeswoman for the nation’s largest police union, which represents the two officers involved, backed up that view.

“If we are saying anything and everything is a racist crime, we won’t be able to fight against real cognitive bias that pollutes public service,” Ms. Kebbab said.

A few blocks from the courthouse, a group of teenagers who knew Mr. Merzouk from the neighborhood sat on couches in the storefront of a small community organization, the burned carcasses of three cars in view. They pointed out the injustice of being charged for threatening police, when they regularly felt threatened by police I.D. checks.

“There are prisons and justice — prisons are for you, but justice isn’t,” said Yasmina Kammour, 25, a youth worker in the neighborhood.

Two warring online fund-raising campaigns underscore the point, she said. The one established for the family of the police officer who shot Nahel has surpassed €1.4 million in just five days. The one for Mr. Mezrouk’s mother has reached €378,000.

“It proves so many things,” said Ms. Kammour. “They have the money, they have the power.”

In the end, Mr. Linize was found guilty and given an eight-month suspended sentence. He was ordered to wear an electronic bracelet for four months, take a citizenship class for €300 and remain employed.

The next person arrested during the protests arrived in the glass defendant’s box just after 10 p.m.

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.

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